This is potato harvesting time in Denmark, when growers dig up the tubers before a hard frost turns them grey and mushy. Potatoes form a central part of the Danish diet, appearing daily in most households and even joining the traditional Christmas dinner plate, lightly caramelized.

But Danes were slow to take a liking to potatoes (“kartofler” in Danish). Sailors brought the novel plant back from America in the early 16th century and the tubers quickly gained popularity in much of Europe. Late in the 18th century, encouraged by the so-called “potato Germans” who brought growing techniques to Jutland, a small number of Danish farmers used the plants to restore soil nutrients, feeding the crop to farm animals and, increasingly, themselves. By 1820, potatoes began to appear more often on the dinner table – only to vanish again 25 years later when blight swept across Europe and wiped out the potato harvest for several years. While one million Irish starved to death during this crop failure and another million emigrated, Danes were rescued by grains, which remained dominant in the diet, and averted starvation.

The potato plant belongs to the nightshade family, which contains eggplants, peppers and tomatoes, as well as many toxic strains. Nutrients in potatoes include vitamin C, potassium, vitamin B6 and iron. Not only are they tasty to eat, but like grains they can be distilled to produce aquavit – a flavored spirit that is commonly sipped or chugged down as a shot in Scandinavian celebrations. If another widespread blight were to strike Europe’s potatoes today, many more Danes would take note than 170 years ago.

References

Denmark’s Potato Museum (in Danish)
Science Nordic: The potato disease that changed the world
Beginner Garden (in Danish)
Potato Goodness list of nutrients
Painting by Van Gogh, Still life with potatoes in a yellow bowl, 1888, via Wikimedia Commons