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Monday, December 3, 2012

Frederick, Voltaire and Potatoes

Perhaps you have been wondering how you will celebrate the 300th birthday of Frederick the Great of Prussia (Friedrich der Grosse), also known as the “potato king.” Perhaps you planned to order extra home fries with your Western omelet, and leave it at that. But you would be denying yourself serious fun.

Frederick the Great (1712-1786) had to face serious opposition when he set out to introduce the potato crop to Germany.
We know that the Spanish conquistadores discovered the delights of potatoes in Peru and Bolivia, and brought the tubers back to Europe in the 16th century. Potatoes spread throughout Spain and Italy (gnocchi), and up the Low Countries (frites) and Britain (chips). The Swiss botanist Caspar Bauhin correctly identified the potato as a member of the nightshade family, making it a relative of eggplants, deadly nightshade, wolfberry, tobacco and petunias. Meanwhile, others somewhat fancifully assigned to the potato aphrodisiac powers and nicknamed it “Eve’s apple” and “earth’s testicles”.
Though potatoes were being randomly grown in Germany by the end of the 18th century, they were hardly widespread and were generally viewed with superstition. FtG wanted to change all that. Around 1774 he set out to encourage potato cultivation, as away of diversifying the grain harvest with a root crop. But lumpy testicular blobs were not immediately appealing to the peasants, so Frederick had his own potato fields planted, and then set his soldiers to guard the field: to ostentatiously guard the fields, thus provoking curiosity. They were also instructed to not actually stop anyone from stealing the potatoes from the fields. Any parent recognizes this agricultural version of what we like to call reverse psychology.
And it worked. (Dumplings, German potato salad)
By 1776 the potato crop was an important food source. So much so that the War of Bavarian Succession is more commonly known as the Potato War (Kartoffelkrieg) because instead of engaging in any battles (none) the soldiers on all sides busied themselves despoiling the local peasants of their food, digging up the potatoes, and glaring at one another.
Meanwhile, FtG and Voltaire were close friends, and occasional frenemies. They both enjoyed debating arcane philosophical points, and topping off the evening with kartoffle pie and schnapps. Frederick especially enjoyed the rare occasions when he might outwit the brilliant (and showoffy) Voltaire. One day FtG asked Voltaire if he could estimate how many pounds of potatoes were hanging from trees in Prussia. Just to rub it in, he said that even his horse knew the answer to this one. Since I heard this story translated, I cannot vouch for my accuracy. But the punch line is that Voltaire did not realize that potatoes grow underground, not from trees. Voltaire was miffed and left the palace in a huff. The two enlightened friends were later reconciled and enjoyed many more evenings of potatoes and philosophy.
How does Christine know all this fascinating stuff about FtG and the potato, and why do we care? Recently the adventurous and likewise-porcelain-loving Bine and I visited the K├Ânigliche Porzellan-ManufakurKPM plant. Right in the middle of Berlin is this beautifully restored porcelain factory. We had a delightful time and I managed to emerge without breaking a single thing.
Frederick loved porcelain almost as much as he loved potatoes, and so KPM is honoring Frederick’s 300th with the creation of a porcelain potato. Yes, for 90€ you can buy, own and acquire a porcelain potato. I can’t presume to think what FtG would have thought about this, but I imagine that Voltaire would have been delighted.

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