The Forbidden Vegetable: Why Were Potatoes Illegal in France?
The humble potato, now a staple in the cuisine of many countries, was once considered poisonous and was banned in France for 24 years. This intriguing chapter in history highlights how societal fears can sometimes overshadow scientific evidence. In this article, we will explore the reasons behind the ban, the French scientist who changed public opinion, and how potatoes eventually became a beloved ingredient in French cuisine.
Fear of the Unknown: The Banned Potato
During the 18th century, potatoes were viewed with suspicion in France. The general population believed that these starchy vegetables were only fit for pigs and could even cause leprosy, despite a lack of any scientific evidence to support such claims (Reader, 2009). This fear was so strong that in 1748, the French Parliament declared growing potato plants a crime (Salaman, 1985).
The ban on potatoes remained in place until 1772, when a French scientist named Antoine-Augustin Parmentier began his crusade to change the perception of this versatile vegetable.
Antoine-Augustin Parmentier: The Potato Crusader
Parmentier, who was captured by Prussia during the Seven Years’ War, was fed a steady diet of potatoes while in prison (Zuckerman, 1998). Upon his release, he recognized the potato’s nutritional value and began promoting it as a solution to various health and food security issues.
Parmentier dedicated himself to demonstrating the benefits of potatoes to the French people. He advocated for their use in treating dysentery (Parmentier, 1773) and highlighted how potatoes could be a sustainable, easy-to-grow crop in times when other crops failed (Murray, 2011). He also introduced the idea of using potatoes to make bread (Bourke, 1993).
Changing the Tide: Potatoes Gain Acceptance
Despite facing resistance from a superstitious society, Parmentier persisted in his efforts to popularize potatoes. He hosted high-profile dinners for influential guests, such as diplomats and nobility, where potatoes were served in various dishes (Zuckerman, 1998). Gradually, his efforts paid off, and potatoes began to gain acceptance in France.
In 1772, the ban on growing potatoes was lifted, and the vegetable went on to become a crucial part of the French diet. Today, potatoes feature prominently in many iconic French dishes, such as gratin dauphinois, pommes de terre à la boulangère, and of course, the world-famous French fries.
The story of how potatoes were once illegal in France serves as a reminder of how societal fears can lead to irrational decisions. Thanks to the dedication of Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, the potato was able to overcome its negative reputation and become an essential ingredient in French cuisine. Today, it is difficult to imagine a world without this versatile and nutritious vegetable.
Bourke, J. (1993). Food in Europe. European History Quarterly, 23(3), 403-410.
Murray, M. (2011). The Library: An Illustrated History. Skyhorse Publishing.
Parmentier, A. A. (1773). Examen chymique des pommes de terre. Paris: Didot jeune.
Reader, J. (2009). Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent. Yale University Press.
Salaman, R. N. (1985). The History and Social Influence of the Potato. Cambridge University Press.
Zuckerman, L. (1998). The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World. North Point Press.