We know that potatoes were developed in South America, and were unknown in Europe before colonization. We also know that Europeans were resistant to consuming them, and had to be tricked into trying potatoes (however, that trick has been credited to two different men). But going back further, we learn that the potatoes of the Andes in 8,000 BCE were actually toxic.
These early potatoes were very different from the potatoes we know today. They came in a variety of shapes and sizes and had a bitter taste that no amount of cooking could get rid of. They were also slightly poisonous. To combat this toxicity, wild relatives of the llama would lick clay before eating them. The toxins in the potatoes would stick to the clay particles, allowing the animals to consume them safely. People in the Andes noticed this and started dunking their potatoes in a mixture of clay and water—not the most appetizing gravy, perhaps, but an ingenious solution to their potato problem. Even today, when selective breeding has made most potato varieties safe to eat, some poisonous varieties can still be bought in Andean markets, where they’re sold alongside digestion-aiding clay dust.
We also learn the different methods of making mashed potatoes and how Thomas Jefferson made his from spuds he dehydrated. This history is available in both text and video form at Mental Floss.
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