Reader's Digest - - Contents - by kate lowen­stein and daniel gritzer

IT’S COM­PLETE DARK­NESS, through day and night, where I am. In the si­lence of the cool, loosely packed earth, I’m re­pro­duc­ing. My eyes shoot forth stems, mil­lime­ter by mil­lime­ter, into the dirt around me. Above­ground, my green leaves bask in the sun­light, pho­to­syn­the­siz­ing sug­ars, which ease down­ward to nour­ish nodes along those stems. The nodes then swell with flesh—new pota­toes in the mak­ing, each one a per­fect clone of me.

Cloning my­self in the dark isn’t the only way I re­pro­duce. My sec­ond means of re­pro­duc­tion is fer­til­iza­tion of my flow­ers by an­other potato plant, and any va­ri­ety will do. This in­sur­ance pol­icy has given me max­i­mum flex­i­bil­ity as a mul­ti­plier over the ages. To­day, 8,000 years since hu­mans be­gan cul­ti­vat­ing my ilk near Lake Tit­i­caca in the Peru­vian An­des, tax­onomists have no idea how many cul­ti­vated and wild ver­sions of me ex­ist.

I am the Solanum tubero­sum, a mem­ber of the night­shade fam­ily and a close cousin of toma­toes, egg­plant, pep­pers, and to­bacco. Don’t let our shared moniker fool you: I am no re­la­tion to the sweet potato. She’s cor­rectly de­scribed as a root veg­etable, whereas my ed­i­ble part is the stem, swollen into a starchy, fill­ing snack.

Thou­sands of years ago, I was but a knobby knot in the ground, hardly ed­i­ble, at times even poi­sonous. In the dirt-caked hands of gen­er­a­tions of farm­ers, I’ve been bred so that my bit­ter gly­coal­ka­loids—the com­pounds

that to this day make me go green af­ter one too many days on your win­dowsill—are at safe-to-eat lev­els, and my ed­i­ble in­sides have ex­panded to ac­com­mo­date the hu­man ap­petite.

As a re­sult of this happy co­ex­is­tence with my cul­ti­va­tors, I’ve hitched my way all over the world and adapted to life on con­ti­nents out­side my home turf in the Amer­i­cas. I can live at 12,000 feet in the dry, chilly moun­tains and at sea level in the trop­ics.

My ap­pear­ance is as var­ied as the places I live. I can be white, yel­low, red, pur­ple, pink, or blue; speck­led, spot­ted, coiled, or mot­tled; knobby, smooth, thin, or stumpy; cov­ered in skin that’s thick and leath­ery or as thin as tis­sue pa­per.

De­spite this daz­zling di­ver­sity, a North Amer­i­can shop­per will en­counter only a few va­ri­eties: rus­sets, which are very starchy and thus good for baked pota­toes and fries; Yukon Golds, which are moist and waxy and great for pro­duc­ing a silky mash; finger­lings and new pota­toes, de­light­ful when boiled; and red pota­toes, per­fectly ten­der and sweet in a potato salad. Around the world, I take many more forms, from soft purees to shat­ter­ingly crisp potato chips. I’m rolled into cloud­like dumplings in Italy, bulk up Guin­ness stews in Ire­land, and grace the ta­bles of France’s haute tem­ples of gas­tron­omy, usu­ally laden with but­ter and cream.

Yet I didn’t be­come the fifth­most-abun­dant crop across the globe in 2016 as an in­dul­gence. I am a true sta­ple, highly storable, sur­pris­ingly nu­tri­tious. Civ­i­liza­tions have de­pended on me. The In­can Em­pire grew on my back, its sol­diers

sub­sist­ing on me as they marched through harsh moun­tain ter­rain. Euro­peans re­lied on me through lean times, some­times too heav­ily. My neme­sis, the fun­gus that pro­duces late blight, at­tacked me in the mid1800s in western Europe and nearly col­lapsed Ire­land, where about one mil­lion peo­ple died.

More re­cently, I’ve been iden­ti­fied by NASA as a food seem­ingly made for as­tro­nauts on mis­sions, as I of­fer all nine es­sen­tial amino acids, the build­ing blocks of pro­teins nec­es­sary for hu­mans to main­tain them­selves. (That sub­plot of The Mar­tian in which the Matt Da­mon char­ac­ter lives on pota­toes alone may not be too off base.) Even the whitest and bland­est of my brethren con­tain potas­sium, fiber, and an ar­ray of po­ten­tially can­cer- and heart dis­ease– fight­ing polyphe­nols in their flesh and skin. My most abun­dant polyphe­nol, chloro­genic acid, which is as­so­ci­ated with low­er­ing blood sugar, is im­por­tant for di­a­bet­ics.

To­day, sci­en­tists on Earth are breed­ing bio­for­ti­fied ver­sions of me with dou­ble the nor­mal iron con­tent to feed parts of the world where ane­mia is per­va­sive. They are us­ing ge­netic mod­i­fi­ca­tion to de­velop a potato fully re­sis­tant to the fast-mov­ing late blight, which is still the most ag­gres­sive threat to me. There is also a sig­nif­i­cant ef­fort to de­velop va­ri­eties of me that tol­er­ate the stresses of drought, soil salin­ity, and heat as cli­mate change presses in on sta­ple crops like me. Dare I say, that’s progress for a tu­ber that got its start un­der­foot, in the silent dark­ness.

Kate Lowen­stein is the ed­i­tor-in-chief of Vice’s health web­site, Tonic; Daniel Gritzer is the culi­nary di­rec­tor of the cook­ing site Se­ri­ous Eats.

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