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The History’s Greatest Potato Promoter.

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Antoine Parmentier painted by François Dumont in 1812.

Before Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, the French considered the potatos disgusting and poisonous.

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A French army medic evacuates wounded soldier, 1750s.

Born in 1737, Antoine Parmentier became a pharmacist in the French army and spent three years as a prisoner of war. The prison diet consisted largely of potatoes, which the Prussians cultivated but the French viewed with disdain. Once freed, he made the potato his obsession.

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While the spud (potato) had crossed the Atlantic (from its native South America) in the late 1500s, it was viewed with suspicion in many European countries. In France, it was fed to pigs but considered suspect for human consumption. Superstition held that it was poisonous or caused leprosy— an ugly desease of the past. The fact that potatoes grow underground, and not from seeds, also darkened its reputation. Potatoes weren’t sold or grown in any great volume.

But after returning from three years of the potato diet with his health intact, Parmentier set to work to prove that his own experience was no anomaly.

That’s very typical of the period, when you have the flourishing of the sciences and people challenging old ideas. Parmentier put potatoes on European plates and had a dramatic effect on world history.

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King Frederick believed that eating potatoes could lower the price of bread and even substitute for cereals in the event of a shortage. In 1744, he introduced potatoes into his army’s diet.

Parmentier started by going to scientific institutions and the Faculty of Medicine in Paris. He wanted, says Delors, “an official statement that potatoes were not as dangerous as they had been believed to be in France.” Famine was a recurring problem, and after 1770’s failed harvest, the Academy of Besançon offered a prize for proposals to address the problem. Parmentier won with his potato-propounding essay “Inquiry into Nourishing Vegetables That in Times of Necessity Could Substitute for Ordinary Food,” which he then expanded into a more thorough examination of the potato’s potential.

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The president Thomas Jefferson introduced so called French Fries in US.

While his work conformed to the relatively new scientific rigors of his day, his public efforts to build awareness of the potato were splashier. Both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson attended his potato-centric dinners, wherein the potato featured in different guises over as many as 20 courses. A copy of Parmentier’s treatise found its way to Jefferson’s library at Monticello, and it may be that Thomas Jefferson brought what would become the French fry back with him and served it at a White House dinner.

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In 1886, royal support also included a plot of land to grow potatoes in Sablon, then on the western edge of Paris. Parmentier hyped his urban farm project by hiring guards to watch the plot, creating the impression the potatoes were valuable. Intrigued cityfolk could nonetheless surreptitiously help themselves to “free samples” when the guards retired for the evening.

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Farmers’ adoption of the potato had a profound impact on history. The potato radically altered the productivity of French farms. Its yields were more reliable than those of wheat. It prospered in many different soils and was easy to farm. And in other countries, leaders such as Catherine the Great (Russia) and King Adolf (Sweden) promoted the potato for similar reasons. By some estimates, potatoes doubled Europe’s food supply in terms of calories.

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The king himself acknowledged Parmentier’s efforts, granting a sinecure in 1774 to allow him to conduct his research and eventually telling him, “France will not forget you found food for the poor.” Parmentier is still well known in France. A number of dishes include his name. The Parisian metro station that bears his name.

The king himself acknowledged Parmentier’s efforts, granting a sinecure in 1774 to allow him to conduct his research and eventually telling him, “France will not forget you found food for the poor.” Parmentier is still well known in France. A number of dishes include his name. The Parisian metro station that bears his name.

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