Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World” as Want to Read:
The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World

3.61  ·  Rating details ·  517 ratings  ·  61 reviews
The Potato tells the story of how a humble vegetable, once regarded as trash food, had as revolutionary an impact on Western history as the railroad or the automobile. Using Ireland, England, France, and the United States as examples, Larry Zuckerman shows how daily life from the 1770s until World War I would have been unrecognizable-perhaps impossible-without the potato, ...more
Paperback, 336 pages
Published October 25th 1999 by North Point Press (first published June 1st 1998)
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about The Potato, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about The Potato

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 3.61  · 
Rating details
 ·  517 ratings  ·  61 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World
Jenn "JR"
Feb 26, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: food-ag-history
This is really a solid book - sort of a gateway book - it purports to be about the potato, but it's really about land tenancy laws, enclosure, the advent of crop rotation, population growth,famine, fuel costs, social history of home baking & the like. The chapter "Women's Work" could be an article to stand on its own. He even gets into discussion of the use of utensils, dishes & pots - and given the late adaptation of forks in the US, and the ongoing use of knives for eating in England - it's no ...more
Clare O'Beara
The print is very small in this factual book, which covers the daily diets of the majority of people in Europe for a few centuries. We can be glad all over again that we did not live in the old days.

Importing the potato from the Andes took some time to catch on, and only the fact of it thriving in Europe's conditions made it popular. Europe ate grain, meaning wheat bread if people could get it. When they couldn't, because of price or growing conditions, they ate rye bread or oats. The bread cou
There is nothing wrong with this book, but I was hoping for something different. In general, I enjoy books which use food to teach us history, especially what life was like for ordinary people. I usually, however, like to learn a little more about the subject before using it as a way to view history. Zuckerman writes about how Europeans viewed potatoes, but not much about potatoes themselves. I wish he had included a little more about their history in Peru before they made it over to Europe. I w ...more
Dec 18, 2015 rated it really liked it
Zuckerman speaks of potatoes from time of Aztecs in Andes to contemporary western culture makes good arguments about what caused mid 19th-century blight, easy to follow; society and charity, adequately easy to follow. Zuckerman speaks of interesting questions arising as people tried to make sense of potatoe blight: Considering marriage and birth rates, death rates, primary dependency on potato, micro farms, absent large land owners, poverty decreasing amount of milk or other protien to complete ...more
Mar 25, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, nonfiction, food
I do so love these food biographies. This is actually one of the better ones that I've read.

Potatoes are a humble food, of course, which is exactly why they've had such an impact where they've been grown and eaten. Potatoes are relatively easy to grow, with relatively high yields, and relatively easy to store and cook once harvested. That perfectly sets them up to be poor peoples' food, and that's the exact focus of this history.

Zuckerman does a good job of tracing attitudes towards potatoes, f
Feb 10, 2010 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this one. I found so much to think about in here. Just look at this list of themes up there - and this is supposed to be about potatoes! But it was amazing how much the 'humble spud' effected.

The potato was viewed with some suspicion early on. In England, this latest a surprisingly long time. In France and Ireland, people eventually loved it as an easy substitute for growing grain, because it took less labor and would grow in poorer soil, as well as being easier for poor working
Feb 21, 2015 rated it liked it
Of interest to anyone who enjoys the history or anthropology of food. Zuckerman explores the relationship between the acceptance of ==> reliance upon the potato as a food source and the dramatic population increases that shaped the history of the western world over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries. He tracks the potato's transition from animal fodder to table staple, primarily in France, Great Britain and the United States and highlights the interplay of utility, social class, and tradi ...more
Amit Mishra
Oct 20, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: food
This book gives a gastronomical history of how the ubiquitous potato, has played an important role in shaping some of the most important events of the world.

Starting from the great famine in Ireland, the French revolution, feeding the teeming millions that worked for the industrial revolution in England and finally the food of the soldiers of the American Revolution, each chapter is a treat to read.

How I wish, somebody would do research and add an Indian perspective about how much we love aloo (
Oct 15, 2015 rated it liked it
Meh. It was okay, but the title promised more than the book delivered. I really didn't see the potato rescuing the western world. The plot could be summed up thusly:
Europe didn't like or trust the potato. They they did. Then blight happened, and that was sad. America was pretty much always okay with the potato. The end.
I was hoping for more.
Dude, it's about potatoes! And history. And the history of potatoes. And how potatoes affected history. Of course it gets 4/5! Now if only I could find a copy of "The History and Social Influence of the Potato" by Redcliffe N. Salaman, I'd be really happy! ...more
Jan 09, 2014 rated it did not like it
Shelves: food
Oh dear god, but this was dull. I picked it up thinking it would be like the book on salt I read last year, but unfortunately not. It was repetitive and dull and definitely not a book I would recommend.
Brian Gibson
in the middle of reading it, so far it's about potatoes. ...more
May 09, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: science-nature
I enjoy these micro-histories. This one drug on a little bit by the end, but was interesting. The potato: who knew?
Rev. M. M. Walters
Jun 04, 2022 rated it liked it
When I was a student in Belgium, frites stands were practically as ubiquitous as hot dog carts in New York City. Things have changed a bit now, but I think french-fried potatoes still compete with the waffle for Belgium's favourite street food. I was intrigued by Larry Zuckerman's book on the history of the potato and its place in civilisation. I was not disappointed. I now have learned more about the potato than I thought possible.

Most people associate the potato with Ireland (mostly because of
Feb 22, 2021 added it
We got potatoes in the blood in this family. Great for the deep dive on peasant eating habits in early modern Europe. We have it so good, mate. Wish it expanded more in to the current context as potatoes-as-fast-food. Pretty dry overall--like a mouth full of baked russet without butter or sour cream.
Ivan Savić
Nov 26, 2018 rated it liked it
The book is about 18th and 19th century Ireland, Englend, France and US and how they adopted potatoe in their cuisines. What were the struggles and how it prevailed. It is not only about potatoe, it is more of a general cuisine and people lives of the period, what they eat and how they lived. There are a lot of segments from diaries and books from the period that tell this stories first hand. Sometimes author repeats some facts he already mentioned, but in general the book is good if you are int ...more
Jul 15, 2013 rated it really liked it
The delicious potato was much reviled by the elite classes when first introduced to Europe in the 1500s, after its discovery in the high plains of the Andes. (The sweet potato, however, was much favored by Henry the Eighth for its sweetness and because of its reputed quality as an aphrodisiac.) Legend has it that the potato was first introduced to Ireland in 1590 by Sir Walter Raleigh. Ireland was the first European community to embrace this new root crop. Zuckerman lays out the history of its i ...more
Oct 09, 2008 rated it liked it
The Potato was by far my favorite of the four food history books I read this spring. For one thing, Zuckerman is quite explicit about his focus on France, England, and Ireland, and lays out his reasoning for that focus persuasively. For another, the book is much less a string of historical tidbits about potatoes, and far more an integrated history of agriculture and the ways in which potato farming made sense in particular peasant economies. Zuckerman discusses Irish agricultural law and the pea ...more
Joel Wakefield
Apr 28, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: funky-food-books
A book with a subtitle that shows that the author wanted to do big, majestic things with it: “How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World.” He did go big with it, but unfortunately he went so broad that he kind of left the potato itself off to the side. The book ended up being an interesting look at what people ate in England, Ireland, France, and the United States and a little bit about how the potato made inroads in each country after being a new vegetable starting in the 1500s and then esse ...more
Apr 17, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: secret-histories
The author of this book is a historian's historian. He is conscience that his is writing what some call a "social history" and says so early on. And he is...but many of these secret histories, of which I read a lot, are actually not written by historians, or they're historians and something else (journalist actually write a lot of these sorts of books). Not this guy though, you read a whole chapter about the Great Potato Famine of Ireland and realize that he didn't talk a lot about the potato it ...more
Nov 09, 2011 rated it really liked it
This excellent microhistory really does cover everything you ever wanted to know about potatoes, from their introduction into Europe from South America to the Irish Potato blight and on to the creation of such modern staples as potato chips and fish and chips. Zuckerman covers social, legal, medical, public health, and sometimes even religious attitudes during the west's slow adoption and increasing dependence on the Noble Spud as a staple food source. The book is rigorously scholarly but writte ...more
Dec 04, 2011 rated it liked it
I liked this book, almost as much as I like potatoes. It's certainly a more scholarly read than both "The Story of Corn," which I was not able to finish on the first try for a number of reasons (I'll give it another try yet) and "America's First Cuisines," which is nonetheless a good read and suggests there's some good scholarly work behind it. If the reader doesn't have a particular interest in the anthropology/history of food, I expect he/she might find it a bit of a slog. It's not an easy, po ...more
Andrew James Jiao
Nov 01, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: reviewed
This is the first time I have read anything about a crop that contains such detail. I can't imagine how much time is put to the writing of this. It's more than just the history of the potato, it used the potato as a lens for looking at 17th-20th century Irish, English, French, and American society, exposing their pains, social class struggles, and attitudes. It is a long read, since every paragraph is filled with plenty of information drawn from mostly newspaper articles and personal diaries fro ...more
Sep 10, 2015 rated it liked it
Parts of it was interesting. Parts were a little to scholarly for my tastes, although I appreciated he did try to find the truth and not just takes statements at face value. The part about America was interesting but did not have much to do with the potato .
He is right, we still talk about the poor today the same way we did back then with morality and judgment.
I really felt sorry for the poor Irish, their lives seemed horrible. It's interesting the peasants in France were just as poor, but did
Aug 30, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting, although I found that some parts went into too much detail while others weren't detailed enough. The history and sociology surrounding the potato were interesting to read, but like a previous reviewer I would have liked to see more about the potato itself, different varieties, the difference between modern potatoes and the original Andean version, etc. Overall I enjoyed it though... and it made me crave potatoes! ...more
Feb 23, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Who knew one little tuber could be so interesting? Around the world and through the ages as our relationship with this edible member of the nightshade family evolves on our collective dinner plate. Pay hommage to the humble spud, as it sustained our ancestors and still makes for a darn tasty side dish. Hope he writes a book on kholrabi next.
Jul 31, 2008 rated it really liked it
A fascinating social history of the potato's impact on Great Britain, France, Ireland and the United States. I had no idea this vegetable ignited so much controversy! This book taught me many things about the way of life and the opinions of people back then, and it had a substantial bibliography for those inclined to read more. ...more
Mar 13, 2013 rated it liked it
I learned a lot about the eating habits in 18th, 19th, and early 20th century England, Ireland, France, and the U.S., especially among the lower economic classes. Also, I never realized that the potato was so reviled during those years. It got blamed for diseases, and was generally looked down upon as fit only for animal feed. However, the book tended to drag. It should have been shorter.
Les Wolf
Apr 06, 2014 rated it really liked it
From its humble beginnings among the rocky terrain of the Andes mountains to its quasi-glorious debut on the American dinner table, this book takes you on a journey through the turbulent life and times of the potato.
It's been venerated, denigrated, chastised, despised and disguised. Through it all, it has emerged as a dinner staple and made a better life possible for many.
Jun 18, 2014 rated it really liked it
Very interesting and well-researched, though a strong focus on the society and politics behind how the potato was seen as a food with less on the actual potato itself.

I enjoyed it, and would read the same book on another staple for sure if the author published another one. It can be a bit dense at times, but worth the read.
« previous 1 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »

Readers also enjoyed

  • Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History
  • Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law
  • The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World
  • Monkey Business: Swinging Through the Wall Street Jungle
  • This Is Your Mind on Plants
  • Blood and Guts in High School
  • How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe 
  • A Distant Mirror:  The Calamitous 14th Century
  • Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition
  • Against the Day
  • Fan Fiction
  • Shakespeare Basics for Grown-Ups: Everything You Need to Know About the Bard
  • Sustainable Kitchen; Recipes and Inspiration for Plant-based, Planet-conscious Meals
  • The Darwin Affair
  • New Earth (The Grand Tour, #21)
  • Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World
  • This Is What Happened
  • Three Years in Hell: The Brexit Chronicles
See similar books…
See top shelves…

Related Articles

It's the time of year for soups, sautees, and stories! If you're looking for a palate cleansing non-fiction to listen to, this roundup has memoirs...
27 likes · 4 comments