Originally published 03.02.19 by Retrospect Journal.
On Wednesday 30 January, the Global and Transnational History Research Group welcomed Professor Rebecca Earle from the University of Warwick to present her research on ‘Potatoes and the Pursuit of Happiness’. In this seminar, Earle explored the potato as a foodstuff that came to be imbued with a distinct political significance in eighteenth-century Enlightenment Europe, challenging the typical historiographical assumption that imbuing foods with political meaning is a phenomenon associated with the first half of the twentieth century.
Through a discussion of food history, Earle’s research sets out to explore the shifting relationship between the individual and the state in the eighteenth century. In looking at the changing discourse on potatoes, Earle suggests, we can trace the point at which the state began to express interest in the dietary habits of ordinary civilians. As Earle remarked, the state has always been concerned that its citizens are eating, but until the eighteenth century, there was little interest in exactly what the diet of the masses consisted of. Stemming from Enlightenment ideas about individualism and free choice, this period witnessed the individual diet becoming a fundamental concern of numerous governments across Europe.
Earle’s research brings to light the unprecedented popularity of potatoes in the 1700s. As the eighteenth century progressed, potatoes came to be held as a ‘marvelous’ source of nourishment, establishing an almost undisputed reputation as an Enlightenment super-food. Monarchs issued various edicts encouraging the growth and consumption of more potatoes; John Howard remarked that potatoes would help the labouring poor; and numerous patriotic institutions offered prizes for the biggest and best potatoes and held competitions for the most nourishing potato soup recipes.
The pan-European promotion of the potato in this era, however, has often mistakenly been associated with the predominance of famines. Yet, as Earle astutely remarked, famines had also plagued the 1600s and, if anything, they were decreasing in their frequency. Hence, famines do not account for the sudden interest in potatoes that occurs in the 1700s, and Earle instead suggested that an explanation for the potato’s newfound popularity can be located in the broader context of Enlightenment thought and principles.
The eighteenth century gave rise to new ideas about national strength, in which the health and vigour of the population came to be linked to the wealth and power of the state: an individual’s healthy dietary choices were understood to produce a healthy body politic. Adam Smith, for example, proposed that economic success depended on the population being content, noting that the strongest men (i.e. Irish coal-heavers) and the most beautiful women (i.e. Irish prostitutes) survived on potatoes. Along these lines, the consumption of the potato was encouraged in accordance with the Enlightenment slogan of ‘the pursuit of happiness’.
Samuel Engel, for instance, associated happiness with the feeding of people. Likewise, William Buchan associated the encouragement of agriculture with the happiness of the English people, the eradication of poverty, and the strengthening of the body politic as a whole. Similarly, Italian thinker Pietro Maria Bignami associated increased potato consumption with commercial prowess, and by extension, population growth, riches, and happiness. Moreover, in 1767, one commenter remarked that the potato was ‘a source of happiness and opulence’. Benjamin Thompson, or Count Rumford, who was renowned for his nourishing potato soup recipe, placed emphasis on the tastiness of the soup and the chewing of croutons as a way of extending the pleasure of eating. Soup kitchens also took pains to ensure that their soup recipes were approved by the poor themselves. In other words, the dominant discourse on potatoes in this era emphasized that the poor were entitled to happiness, and that the feeding of the poor would lead to the happiness of the nation.
Furthermore, this political discourse on potatoes was interwoven with Enlightenment ideas about the importance of free choice. It was repeatedly emphasized that the government would not force people to either grow or consume potatoes – something John Sinclair termed ‘infinite mischief’. Instead, it was believed that farmers and the poor should select potatoes based on their own free will. The government maintained that their role was to inform the public as best they could about the nourishing and superior qualities of the potato. Earle remarked that this showed a shift toward responsibilisation: ‘the process in which subjects are rendered individually responsible for a task that would have previously been the task of another’.
Earle’s seminar thus shed light on the new models of eating and governance that emerged in eighteenth-century Enlightenment Europe. Food history, and the history of the potato specifically, reveals the intertwined relationship between ordinary people’s lives, individualism, political economy, and the state. Tied up with the Enlightenment discourse about ‘happiness’, the potato became an important symbol associated with the strength, wealth, and growth of European nations, and a means through which the state displayed regard for the lives of the poor.