Buried in the 1873 edition of The Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste is a very peculiar description of Rev. Chauncey E. Goodrich. Without elaboration it described the Reverend has having “…such a delicate constitution that he cannot eat a potato.” Presumably the small readership of the Horticulturist was well acquainted with Goodrich and many understood what this literary wink implied. But, alas, we are clueless. We are left to wonder why Rev. Chauncey E Goodrich couldn’t eat a potato including one called ‘Garnet Chili’ that he created and that changed the world.
Chauncey E Goodrich was an Episcopalian minister in Upstate New York. He came from a well-connected and well-educated New England family. Many of his uncles and cousins held prominent positions in government or academics. His first cousin, also a “Chauncey Goodrich,” held a prominent position at Yale. Chauncey E., however, appears to have been the only Goodrich to wear the collar. We know little about his career in the church but his hobby, growing potatoes, is another matter.
In the summer of 1842 farmers around Philadelphia experienced a disastrous and inexplicable loss of their potato crop. The potatoes sprouted and grew normally but in mid-season their leaves developed ‘dead spots’ that quickly engulfed the plant. Tubers still forming in the ground were reduced to a putrid smelling mush.
The following summer the mysterious potato affliction appeared again and it spread across New England in 1844 presumably darkening the garden gate of the Rev. Goodrich’s potato patch. The term “late blight” was generally used but “potato rot” was a frequent alternative. The sciences of plant pathology and microbiology were nonexistent at the time but several theories were brought forward to explain the phenomena. One concept supported by Goodrich in 1847 was called “degeneracy.” This theory held that potatoes were loosing “vitality” during their ~100 years of cultivation in North America. They proposed to solve the problem by re-introducing “vigorous, native potatoes” from South America to cross with the enfeebled American crop.
In 1850 Goodrich obtained several potato cultivars from Chili via a contact in the American embassy in Panama. One of the cultivars was labeled “Rough Purple Chili.” Its not known what strains Goodrich crossed with Rough Purple Chili but by 1853 he had a potato like no other. “Garnet Chili” was a vigorous potato producing large yields of large round white-fleshed tubers of “excellent quality.”
Goodrich’s new red potato was an instant success. Within a short time another amateur potato grower, Albert Bresee of Hubbardton Vermont, produced a slew of other varieties using Garnet Chili as parent stock. Bresee’s most famous potato, Early Rose, soon became the most widely grown potato in America as fields were replanted with “new and vigorous” potatoes that they assumed were immune from late blight.
One gardener that planted a crop of Early Rose was Luther Burbank’s mother. Although Burbank was a teenager at the time he took quick note of his mother’s crop of potatoes and noted that one potato plant produced seed from its flowers. Intrigued by this unusual event Burbank planted all 23 seeds the next year and found one plant that produced even larger yields of big oblong potatoes. The “Burbank Russet” was discovered.
The development of DNA fingerprinting has allowed researchers to trace the remarkable story of potato genetics from Goodrich’s work in 1850 to the present day. The Garnet Chili potato contributed over half of the genetics to Burbank’s Russet. And it is significantly related to over 150 potato varieties now planted across North America and Europe. In short, Chauncey E Goodrich’s work in his backyard garden produced a genetic taproot for nearly all ‘modern potatoes’ grown today.
And what of the’ late blight’ that inspired Rev. Goodrich’s work? The potato blight first seen in 1841 was very likely transported from America to Europe via potato exports to Belgium where it spread across the continent. In 1845 the first outbreak in Ireland wiped out 70-80% of the potato crop that 3 million people depended upon for survival. Subsequent outbreaks of blight over the next decade plunged Ireland into starvation and millions died. The cause of the disease was debated for nearly fifteen years with prominent scientists taking differing views until a German scientist used a new method of proof called “Koch’s postulates” demonstrated that a small transmissible fungus was to blame. It was quickly shown that Garnet Chile is quite vulnerable to the fungus.
These Garnet Chili potatoes were organically grown in my garden in the Valley of the Moon. It is suggested that they be served with a sense of history and a light dressing of mayonnaise such as found in lobster potato salad. Rev. Goodrich had one thing right. They are of “excellent quality.”