Potatoes, the Ancien Regime and the French Revolution
Potatoes, native to the Andes in South America, were introduced in Europe in the mid-17th century. To say that they did not take the Old Continent by storm would be an understatement. When they were cultivated at all, they served as hog feed. Yet in the course of the 18th century they slowly made their way into the culinary habits of Irish peasants.
At the same time, however, the French still viewed this crop with deep suspicion. It was a racine (litterally a “root,” like carrots, turnips, etc.) and thus reserved for the poorest of the paupers. A person who had to eat racines was only one step away from starvation. Why? Medical and popular opinion accused plants that grew underground of causing “phlegmatic” diseases, which ran the gamut from leprosy to hemorrhoids. Accordingly regulations banned the cultivation of potatoes, even for animal consumption, in some parts of France.
Enters Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, Apothecary of the Invalides Hospital in Paris. Parmentier, as a military pharmacist, had been captured during the Seven Years War in Westphalia, where both prisoners of war and hogs were fed potatoes. Not only did he remain free of any phlegmatic disease, but he came to appreciate the flavor and nutritive qualities of the tubers.
Parmentier, once repatriated in France, tirelessly lobbies the Faculty of Medicine of Paris to change its stance on the supposed dangers of potatoes. That august body, after much deliberation, issues in 1771 an opinion admitting that “the flesh of potatoes is good and healthy, it is in no way toxic and can even be very useful.”
Emboldened, Parmentier proceeds to plant potatoes on a plot near the Invalides, but all he gains is the enmity of the landladies, the nuns of a nearby convent, and a dismissal from his position of Apothecary of the Invalides. He is not easily discouraged. He invites the best scientists of the time, such as Laurent Lavoisier and Benjamin Franklin, to dinners where guests are served potatoes. This is, after all, the Enlightenment, and no assumption goes unquestioned.
Official consecration comes at last. In 1785, four years before the Revolution, Louis XVI grants Parmentier two acres at the Sablons, then west of Paris, for him to grow potatoes for human consumption on a trial basis.
In a stroke of genius, Parmentier has the field heavily guarded by soldiers during daytime, and left unattended at night. Of course the neighbors soon surmise this is a particularly valuable crop, and steal plants under the cover of darkness. The following year, Parmentier heads for Versailles to present the King with a bouquet of potato flowers. Marie-Antoinette wears these simple and lovely blossoms on her hat and fine ladies follow suit. Parmentier’s allotment at the Sablons is increased to 37 acres, and potatoes are now grown in the King’s gardens. in a few years, thanks to Parmentier, the potato has gone from botanical pariah to the height of fashion.
But there is far more than fashion at stake. The winter of 1788-1789 is one of famine, one of the direct causes of the Revolution. The following years will also be marked by terrible food shortages. After the fall of the monarchy in August 1792, an extremist faction, headed by Pierre-Gaspard Chaumette, Procureur-Syndic (right) and his deputy, the famous journalist Jacques-René Hébert, takes control of the Municipality of Paris.
Chaumette is a complex, troubled character. He is remembered for, among other bold ideas, attempting to “cleanse” Paris of the scourge of prostitution by sending the prostitutes to the guillotine. He is also one of the driving forces behind the worship of the “Goddess Reason” and pushes through measures that make the practice of all Christian faiths illegal.
But Chaumette has studied botany, and he has another point in common with the benign Parmentier: he wants to grow potatoes to feed the poor. The similarities stop here. Chaumette decides that there is no room for flowers in the public gardens of Paris when patriots are starving.
Within weeks the gardens of the Tuileries and the Luxembourg are stripped of their lawns and flower beds, now replaced by neat rows of potatoes. The walkways are narrowed to give way to Chaumette’s agricultural zeal. He even plans on pulling out all of the trees because they make too much shade for the potatoes.
But Robespierre hates Chaumette and Hébert, their policies and their demagoguery. He wants to take control of the Municipality of Paris and succeeds in securing their arrest. Chaumette and his friends stand trial before the Revolutionary Tribunal for conspiracy against the Republic and are sentenced to death in 1794. The public gardens of Paris get to keep their trees, and are promptly restored to their former splendor.
As for Parmentier, now that potatoes have found new enthusiastic supporters, he spends the Revolution writing about other ideas and proposing them to the various governments that will rule France during these troubled years. He works on the systematic vaccination of the poor, better nutrition on board Navy ships, more hygienic conditions in hospitals. In addition, he is the founder of a bakers’ school in Paris and researches winemaking techniques and the use of grape fructose to replace cane sugar, unavailable in continental France because of the British blockade. He dies in 1813, at the age of 76. An avenue in Paris, a Metro station and of course the delicious hachis Parmentier are named after this quiet hero.