Gluttons & Gourmands: Antoine-Auguste Parmentier

September 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

In 18th century France, the tomato and potato were largely shunned, regarded with deep suspicion by the state and farmers alike. The tomato is part of the nightshade family of plants, so many Europeans considered the fruit as poisonous as the belladonna plant, also a nightshade plant. (Though of course the Italians were far more accommodating—they credited the fruit with aphrodisiac properties and nicknamed it  “pomi’doro” or “golden apple.”) The potato suffered from a whole host of vicious accusations and slander as well; supposedly it caused leprosy, inflamed sexual desire, and was an instrument of the devil because it was not mentioned in the Bible and was grown in its strange subterranean home beneath the soil.

Fortunately, scientist Antoine-Auguste Parmentier (1737 –1813) introduced a delicious staple of French cooking through his canny understanding of French society. Parmentier had learned of the nurturing benefits of potatoes when he was imprisoned in Prussia during the Seven Years’ War. While locked up, he was forced to subsist on almost nothing but potatoes, previously regarded by the French as only fit for livestock.

Upon release, Parmentier returned home with a unique plan to encourage widespread use of the plant. At his gardens near Neuilly, just west of Paris, Parmentier hired armed guards to watch his fields until the potato plants he had sown were ready for transplant, then instructed the guards to accept all bribery offers from interested farmers and finally withdrew them for a night.

Of course, Parmentier knew the character of the French peasant farmer as well as he did the life-giving powers of the starchy Andean tuber.  As soon as the crops were seemingly left abandoned, the crowd filched all the spuds, starting a long and delicious French association with the potato. To this day, Parmentier is still remembered through many potato recipes, especially brandade de morue parmentier and hachis parmentier. Story courtesy of In the Devil’s Garden: A Sinful History of Forbidden Food.

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