Green Mt. Potato Flowers
In 1769 an apprentice apothecary named Antoine Parmentier entered a contest supported by the French government to find a “food substance capable of reducing the calamities of famine.” Through much of the 17th and 18th centuries France suffered from periodic famines prompted by crop failures, particularly those involving wheat. The French daily diet was largely bread-based with modest supplementation from dairy, fruit and meat. Failures of wheat crops were common as were the consequent famines.
Parmentier’s proposed addition to the French diet was controversial but one based on his personal experience. He had spent a greater portion of his service in the French army of Louis XVth as a prisoner of war in Germany. There he was fed a steady diet of potatoes which were cheap and simple fare in Germany but only considered fit for swine by the French. Parmentier, however, developed an appreciation for potatoes and conducted a variety of experiments with them after his safe return to France. He became convinced that potatoes were an excellent food of “a delicate and flavorful nature”.
Parmentier’s 1769 proposal was to introduce potatoes into the French garden as an attractive flower and as food. His entry won the contest and the interest of the new French king, Louis XVI. Soon after Parmentier’s win the Queen of France wore potato flowers both as ornament and as a ploy to induce the production of potatoes.
Nearly everyone now appreciates Parmentier’s culinary foresight but few recall his appreciation for the potato’s neat habit and attractive flowers. Attached is a reminder. These are Green Mountain Potato flowers that are showing their best in my garden in the Valley of the Moon. Green Mountain is an American heirloom potato that has fallen out of commercial production but never out of favor with Maine potato buffs. It is a vigorous plant with handsome leaves and bright, confident flowers. If so inclined you can wear a sprig of flowers and keep up with the fashion of a French queen. And in a few week’s time you can dine on fare fit for a French king.
Vegetables of Interest, 2008