Thursday, October 07, 2010

La Papa -- The Potato

The Conquistador Gonzálo Jiménez de Quesada wrote an account of his conquest of Nueva Granada -- what is now Colombia -- called Historia General de las Indias. Unfortunately, this record has been lost. There does remain, however, several writers from the late 1500's and early 1600's who did have access to his record and used it as a basis for their own records of the conquest of America. One of these men was Juan de Castellanos.

Castellanos came to the Americas in 1545, landing in Cartagena. Eventually he became the priest of Tunja. There, using Jiménez's work as a base, he wrote his epic poem, Elegias de Varones Ilustres de Indias. The first part of which appeared in Spain in 1588. In his poem, he writes of the first encounter of the Spanish in Nueva Granada with the potato, which occurred in 1537.

... they entered into the large villages
of Sorocotá, and all were deserted...
even though their houses were all filled
with corn, beans and truffles (to us potatoes)
round roots that when planted
produce a stem with branches
and leaves and flowers, which although rare,
are purple in color and soft;
and to the roots of this herb,
which is three hands high,
they (the truffles) are attached under ground
about the size of an egg more or less
some round, others elongated:
they are white, purple, and yellow,
flourlike roots of good taste,
a gift of the Indian gratefully accepted
and to even the Spanish a delicacy.

In addition, in the lone surviving work of Jiménez de Quesada, Epitome de la Conquista del Nuevo Reino de Granada, written in 1550, Jiménez mentions that the natives ate what we now call the potato.

The food of these people is the same as in other parts of the Indies and something more...
which are a kind of truffle of the ground.


I share these because they are among the first recorded mentions of the potato. And, according to some sources, it was Gonzálo Jiménez himself that brought back the first potato to Europe (around 1565). [I have been unable to substantiate this, however. There are many websites that claimthis, but the books I consulted never mentioned it.] Yet, proof that the potato had made it back to Spain by the 1570s appears in market records of Seville, where they were for sale by 1573.

The idea that the first European potatoes came from Colombia, and more specifically Boyacá, makes for an interesting trivia topic when guests come to dinner or for when you do a presentation to your son's Scout troop ;)

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