How the humble potato changed the world

A staple food for cultures across the globe, the tuber has emerged as a nutritional giant and the friend of peasants, rulers and sages. Even today, its possibilities are endless.

In his 1957 essay collection Mythologies, the French philosopher and literary critic Roland Barthes called chips (la frite), a food that comes from a crop native to the Americas, “patriotic” and “the alimentary sign of Frenchness”.

Despite its origins in the Andes, it’s an incredibly successful global food

Just a century earlier, a potato disease prompted a famine that halved Ireland’s population in a few years, producing a decades-long cascading effect of social and economic turmoil. And as you read these lines, the world’s leading potato producers today are China, India, Russia and Ukraine, respectively.

Despite these nations’ intimate and complicated relationships with potatoes, and how intertwined their societies and economies are with them, none can truly call them native. The humble potato was domesticated in the South American Andes some 8,000 years ago and was only brought to Europe in the mid-1500s, from where it spread west and northwards, back to the Americas, and beyond.

Indigenous communities in the Andes still have a close relationship with potatoes (Credit: Credit: International Potato Center)

Indigenous communities in the Andes still have a close relationship with potatoes


“Despite its origins in the Andes, it’s an incredibly successful global food,” said food historian Rebecca Earle, who’s tracing the potato’s planetary journey in a forthcoming book called Feeding the People: The Politics of the Potato. “It’s grown practically everywhere in the world, and practically everywhere, people consider it one of ‘our foods’.”

For the rest of the world beyond the Andes, the potato might not be autochthonous, but it feels local. Earle calls it the “world’s most successful immigrant”, as its origin has become unrecognisable for producers and consumers everywhere. Idaho farmers in the US and gnocchi-loving Italians will claim the potato as much as any Peruvian, because its story is not only that of a country or of a region, but an account of how humans have reconfigured their relationship with land and food within a few generations.

The potato is the world’s fourth-most important crop after rice, wheat and maize, and the first among non-grains. How could an Andean tuber persuade the world, in just a few centuries, to adopt it so completely? What made the potato so irresistible was its unrivalled nutritional value, its relative easiness to cultivate as compared to some major cereals, its ability to easily navigate wars and tax censuses due to its knack for hiding underground from collectors, and in particular, its camaraderie with working men and women in the fields. Continue reading

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Ken Loach on ‘Sorry We Missed You,’ Rooting for Bernie Sanders, and How ‘The BBC Is a Right-Wing Org’

Sorry We Missed You

The celebrated English director opens up to Cassie da Costa about his new film “Sorry We Missed You,” the evils of the gig economy, and his issues with the BBC.

The English director Ken Loach has the rare position of being known chiefly for his leftist politics, and how he works with screenwriter Paul Laverty and producer Rebecca O’Brien to bring the lives of working-class people to screen without a tinge of nostalgia.

His latest film, Sorry We Missed You, follows a working-class Newcastle family, including the long-unemployed Ricky; his wife, Abbie, a home care worker; and their children, the rebellious Seb and clever Liza Jane. A few years out of the 2008 global financial crash, the family is buried under a pile of seemingly insurmountable debt, having taken on loans and credit to survive. Ricky wants to fast-track the family back to financial fitness, and so takes a package-delivery job, replete with a grueling 14-hour-day schedule, punitive digital surveillance, and zero company (or “client,” as the corporate overlords must be called) liability.

Ken Loach
Ken Loach

The power of the film is not only in the painful realism with which it depicts inhumane working conditions and the neoliberal, technocratic logic that shape them, but also in its attention to the often humorous, lighthearted, and tender dynamics of a family and the community around them. Loach (and screenwriter Laverty) understood that while most people “put on a front at the job, when you’re at home, that’s when feelings emerge,” offers Loach. “At home—that’s when people lose it.” Sorry We Missed You is as much about care as it is abuse, and as much about the insight and intelligence of working-class people as it is about the various manipulations and distortions the ruling classes (and their henchmen) place upon them.

But, of course, the family isn’t made up of angels and martyrs—their circumstances are both structural and personal. Ricky seems to buy into the promises of the gig economy, even as he appears steamrolled by its overwhelming precariousness. By focusing on one family, Loach explained, the film is able to trace “how workers changed over the last 40 years since [former Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher’s determination to cut their living standards.” Continue reading

BBC drama Life is set in the same universe as Doctor Foster

Suranne Jones reprises her role from the 2016 hit

BBC One’s upcoming drama Life is set in the same universe as the acclaimed series Doctor Foster, starring Suranne Jones.

Both shows are written by Mike Bartlett and feature a shared character played by Victoria Hamilton (The Crown, Cobra).

Hamilton portrayed Anna Baker in both series of Doctor Foster, moving away in the second to start a new life under the name Belle and becoming a pilates teacher.

Bartlett said: “In the last series of Doctor Foster, Anna split up with Neil and moved away. But I loved her as a character and suspected that was really the start of her story, rather than the end. In Life we find her living alone, under a different name, in a new city.

“It’s one of four story strands that make up the series, the other three being new, completely different interconnected stories that explore the epic and extraordinary in our everyday lives. It might share a universe with Doctor Foster but Life is a whole world of its own.”

It has been confirmed that the series will not feature Doctor Foster stars Suranne Jones (Gentleman Jack) and Jodie Comer (Killing Eve) in any capacity.

Bartlett’s previous series was a big ratings hit, topping 10 million viewers on several occasions, but a third season was never made due to the busy schedules of all involved.

Life is a six-part drama series which follows the lives of a group of people living in a shared house in Manchester.

Alison Steadman (Gavin & Stacey), Peter Davison (Doctor Who), Adrian Lester (Undercover) and Rachael Stirling (Detectorists) also star.

Life is expected to air on BBC One in 2020

Source: BBC drama Life is set in the same universe as Doctor Foster – Radio Times

Life Cinematic: Sam Mendes’ 10 greatest film moments

Oscar winner Sir Sam Mendes revisits the films that have influenced his life and career.

In Life Cinematic, filmmakers draw on their knowledge and expertise to shine a light on the artistry of films that they love, be it the perfect protagonist, sound design, chase sequence or simply their favourite single shot.

The series begins with acclaimed British director Sir Sam Mendes, director of Oscar-nominated 1917 as well as (Oscar winning) American Beauty, Revolutionary Road and James Bond films Skyfall and Spectre. Mendes is interviewed by Edith Bowman, coming to BBC Four on Thursday 30 January and on BBC iPlayer: watch an introduction above and pull up a chair for Sam’s favourite scenes below

Perfect establishing scene

Blue Velvet (1986)

David Lynch’s Reagan-era neo-noir follows clean-cut student Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle McLachlan) as he delves into the terrifying criminal underbelly of his picture-perfect hometown.

According to Lynch, “This is the way America is to me. There’s a very innocent, naive quality to life, and there’s a horror and a sickness as well. It’s everything.”

The film’s opening sequence would be a huge influence on Mendes’ own American Beauty.

Perfect cinematography

Taxi Driver (1976)

In a pivotal moment in Martin Scorsese’s gritty New York thriller, loner Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) telephones the woman he is infatuated with to apologise for taking her to a porn flick on their first date.

As the socially awkward veteran vainly attempts to explain himself, the camera slowly pans away to focus instead on an empty hallway, as if too embarrassed to keep watching. For Scorsese, it was “the most important shot in the film”.

Continue reading