How important are potatoes? Pretty important. Not the most important: According to Smithsonian Magazine, potatoes rank fifth on the essential scale, following wheat, corn, rice and sugar cane.
But even if more people today depend on wheat or corn for survival, potatoes have had a tremendous run: Historian William McNeill believes the potato's capacity to feed rapidly growing European populations from 1750-1950 is what allowed a few Western nations to rule the world.
In Charleston, heirloom potato varieties such as the butterball are popular with chefs, largely because of their deep yellow flesh and namesake flavor. But the following seven facts are true of every potato:
1. Potatoes were first domesticated in the Andes, a region characterized by rugged terrain, unpredictable weather and throughout much of its history, warring factions. People living there needed a reliable food source, and potatoes were nearly perfect. The only problem was their toxicity: Wild potatoes contain a set of poisonous compounds. In order to safely consume dangerous potatoes, eaters learned to thrust them into a slurry of water and clay; once toxins caught on the clay, they could pass through the digestive system without harming it. (In the 8,000 years since the dawn of potato consumption, farmers have figured out how to breed nontoxic spuds.)
2. Europeans were initially skeptical of the potato, which they dismissed as starchy, bland and the cause of gas. In certain corners of the continent, it didn't help that Spaniards were responsible for bringing the tuber back to the Old World: “No Potatoes, No Popery!,” went one 18th-century British campaign slogan. But the potato's contributions to the food supply ultimately won over the holdouts.
3. Earlier this year, the Institute of Medicine advised the USDA to allow the purchase of potatoes under the Women, Infants and Children program: They were previously the only ineligible vegetable. To protest the exemption, the head of the Washington State Potato Commission in 2010 ate 20 potatoes a day for two months. It's unknown whether his antics swayed anyone, but he lost 21 pounds. (Nutritionists advise against such extreme diets.)
4. Thinking ahead to the task of feeding space colonies, NASA in 1995 began experimenting with extraterrestrial food production. The potato was the first vegetable ever grown in space.
5. The best place to store a potato is a root cellar, but a dark, cool closet is an acceptable substitute. Potatoes should never be kept in the refrigerator, since they'll develop an unappealing flavor as the cold turns their starches into sugars. And one bad spud can spoil the bunch, so discard any potatoes that shrivel or sprout.
6. So long as a potato isn't deep-fried or drenched with butter, it's a reasonably nutritious food choice. Potatoes are a good source of fiber (provided you eat the skin) and vitamin B6, associated with brain function and cardiovascular health.
7. The birthplace of the potato remains the center of diversity. According to Smithsonian Magazine, research conducted in 1995 showed Peruvian mountain families grow 10 varieties of potatoes on average. It was noted a single Peruvian field “exceeds the diversity of nine-tenths of the potato crop of the entire United States.”