The Man Who Made Potatoes Popular in France in the 1700s: Antoine-Augustin Parmentier

Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was the man who made potatoes popular in France in the 1700s. His interest in potatoes began after he was captured during the Seven Years’ War and found himself imprisoned in Russia eating mounds of potatoes. Unlike Russians who were willing to eat potatoes, Frenchmen considered them hog feed, and, in fact, in 1748, the French Parlement forbade people from cultivating them because they thought potatoes caused leprosy.

Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Antoine-Augustin Parmentier. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When Parmentier returned to France in 1763, he began to use his degree as a pharmacist to conduct pioneering studies in nutritional chemistry. Remembering his imprisonment, he decided the potato had great nutritional value, as much as wheat. In fact, he considered the potato so valuable and nutritious, he began to consider how he might overcome the prejudices of the French public against the humble potato. Exactly how this came to pass, involves several stories.

Potatoes, Author's Collection
Potatoes. Author’s collection.

One story claims that in 1765 pommes de terre, as they were called, were sometimes eaten by peasants, but peasants thought of them as extremely “coarse food.” To encourage people to eat potatoes, Parmentier decided to use a clever strategy. He planted a field of potatoes in Sablon, hired a day guard, and spread a false report that he was growing something extremely valuable. Then he sat and back waited. Curiosity got the better of the local peasants, who at night stole into his potato patch and dug up the potatoes. According to one account:

“Some peasants stole a few potatoes; other imitated them; and at last the whole crop was disseminated among the inhabitants of the neighboring villages, and the good qualities of [the potato] … were sufficiently well proved to efface all traces of old prejudices.”[1]

Another story claims that Parmentier wanted the King and Queen’s support as he knew their support would encourage Frenchmen everywhere to eat potatoes. So, one day as the royal couple were walking in the gardens of Versailles, he presented each with a potato flower from the Solanum tuberosum. The Queen placed the purple flower in her hair, and the King put his in his buttonhole. The king then questioned Parmentier about the potato and was persuaded to allow a small plot for Parmentier to cultivate potatoes on the royal estate. This encouraged courtiers to also begin to cultivate the potato, and, consequently, the unpopular potato became the “potato popular not only among the poor, but [also] among the wealthy classes.”[2]

Louis XVI Visiting Parmentier's Potato Field, Public Domain
Louis XVI visiting Parmentier’s potato field. Public domain.

Parmentier success with the potato got him thinking about other foods. He later studied Indian corn and chestnuts. Ever eager to increase food supplies, he also studied the bread manufacturing industry and proposed novel ways of grinding flour, which thereby increased it by one-sixth. He was then appointed a member of the Institute in 1801 and began to focus his studies on hospitals and creating cheap soups. In addition, Parmentier began to think of how the potato might be used for nourishment in dysentery patients, and, in fact, he won the prize for the potato in 1773 suggesting it be used to help in times of famine.

Parmentier Showing Potatoes to Louis XVI, Public Domain
Parmentier showing potatoes to Louis XVI. Public domain.

Parmentier saw the potato as the answer to famine in years when wheat crops were poor, but despite his best efforts, the potato still was not considered as valuable as Parmentier thought. To that end, in 1793, the group that oversaw food supplies, the Commission on Subsistence and Provisions, printed ten thousand copies of a pamphlet composed by Parmentier that described potato cultivation. These were distributed to every administrator in every commune, and administrators were ordered to encourage people to grow potatoes. Thus, within a year, “a cookbook appeared with the charming title of La cuisinière (The Republican Cook). It offered twenty potato recipes and invited the public to submit more.”[3]

Napoleon liked the idea of a Republic that could be self-sufficient. So, he encouraged the raising and eating of potatoes, and this resulted in a 15% increase in the production of potatoes. Napoleon also approved other ideas of Parmentier, such as processing sugar from beets, which resulted in another award for Parmentier. Unfortunately, by this time, Parmentier’s health was failing, and he died on 13 December 1813. Parmentier was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, in a plot ringed by potato plants, and among the many accolades he received was this one:

“Few men … have been fortunate enough to render their country so important services. An ardent love for humanity was the genius that inspired Parmentier. As soon as he saw a chance to do good or to render services, he was all animation.”[4]

Years later, in 1886, to honor Parmentier, the town of his birthplace, Montdidier in Somme, decided to hold a festival. The center of the festival included a statue erected to Parmentier who was dressed in “French fashion, wearing a powdered wig, and holding the immortal flower in his hand.”[5] Also on the statue were bas-reliefs showing Parmentier as an army pharmacist on the field of battle, the field of Sablon being invaded by peasants, and Louis XVI, decked out with a potato flower boutonniere.

 

Montdidier Statue of Parmentier, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Montdidier statue of Parmentier. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The festival lasted for two weeks following Easter and ended with a great banquet attended by the Ministers of Agriculture and Publication Instruction. Besides honoring the man who made the potato popular, the festival also consisted of agricultural exhibits, exhibits of horses and dogs, and demonstrations of farming equipment. In addition, there was a meeting to discuss the various types of potatoes and how they would be designated in the future.

References:

  • [1] Meehan, Thomas, Gardener’s Monthly and Horticulturist, Volume 13, 1872, p. 95.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Larry Zuckerman, The Potato, 1999.
  • [4] Scientific American, Volume 22, 1886, p. 8789.
  • [5] Ibid.

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