A potato is a starchy edible tuber native to South America and cultivated all over the world. The tuber has been domesticated for over 10,000 years, and over 1,000 varieties are known, although only a fraction of this number are cultivated commercially. They play an important role in the culture and history of many South American countries, and were adopted into European cuisine and culture when they were introduced in the 1600s.
Domestication of the wild potato began around 8,000 BCE. Many varieties were cultivated by native people, and the tuber quickly became a staple food, along with corn. When explorers first began to visit South America, they were introduced to potatoes, and samples of the crop traveled back to Europe with them. It was at first a reluctant introduction to the garden, as the plants are in the nightshade family, along with eggplants and tomatoes. Parts of nightshade plants can be toxic, and European farmers were at first suspicious of this food. After trial fields grew successfully, however, it was a welcome addition to the European diet.
Potatoes are somewhat difficult to grow. They are subject to rot and fungus if not cared for properly, as the Irish learned in 1845. The plants are usually propagated from buds, called eyes, which form if the tubers are left in the soil instead of being harvested. They will also bud in cool, dry storage conditions, as cooks who forget about those in storage have learned. They are often cut into pieces and replanted, although potatoes can also grow from seed, depending on the variety. As a general rule, the soil must rest between plantings. The plants prefer full sun and light, and loose soil that is watered infrequently. Once harvested, potatoes can be stored in a cool dark place for an extended period of time.
Vitamins A and C can be found in abundance in the tuber, along with some other vitamins and minerals. They can be prepared in a number of ways, but are always eaten cooked. Fried foods, such as French fries and potato pancakes, are popular in many parts of the world, but they are also baked, roasted, boiled, and stewed. The dense white flesh can be dressed with a number of condiments or eaten plain, depending on personal preference.
When seeking out potatoes in the store, shoppers should be aware that different types are more suitable for different foods than others. Waxy potatoes will retain their shape through cooking, making them good choices for boiling and frying. Starchy ones break down, and are good mashed baked.