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In the play, Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff declares “Let the sky rain potatoes!” what’s unique about this quote, despite Falstaff calling for root vegetables to rain down from the sky which is of course, weird on its’ own, but potatoes on the whole were brand new to England at the exact time Shakespeare was including this quote in his play. Merry Wives of Windsor was written towards the end of the 16th century—between 1597 and 1601. Potatoes are thought to have arrived in the late 1580s or early 1590s. Once the potato arrived in Europe it was used for medicine, grown by some gardeners for their flowers, and in 1597, the same time frame we think Merry Wives of Windsor was written, John Gerard added the first printed picture of the potato to Herball (although he thought that the potato was native to Virginia). Here today to help us sort through what it was like to see a potatoe for the first time, as well as how potatoes were used in Shakespeare’s lifetime is our guest and expert in the history of plants, Sally Cunningham.
Sally Cunningham has been a professional gardener and horticultural lecturer/teacher and consultant for over 45 years, working with Garden Organic, formerly HDRA (Henry Doubleday Research Organisation) for over 25 years. Garden Organic is the Uk’s leading organic gardening charity, helping people grow their own food and help the environment for over 70 years, and is the home of the Heritage Seed Library, a living library dedicated to preserving lost and forgotten vegetables for now and future growers.
More on Sally Cunningham
Sally’s previous employers included Royal Botanic Gardens Kew as an outreach worker in Leicester: Leicester Museums where I cared for the gardens of Newarke Houses (built around 1511) and Belgrave Hall (built 1709.)
Lifelong interest in growing (and eating!) all forms of edible plants from everywhere and anywhere, author of Asian Vegetables and co-author of A Guide to Growing Exotic Vegetables in the UK with Dr A Rosenfeld.
I’ll be asking Sally Cunningham about:
- I’ve read that Sir Francis Drake gets credit for bringing potatoes to England for the first time, or possibly Thomas Hariot who worked with Sir Walter Raleigh, as items brought back from Drake’s circumnavigation around the world. Is this actually how and when the potato arrived in England?
- I know that for some Europeans any plant that was considered a nightshade carried some suspicion for its’ potential to be connected with witchcraft. Was the potato considered associated with witchcraft because of its’ resemblance to a nightshade?
- Were potatoes immediately received as a food item, or was it seen as a curiosity?
- …and more!
Correction: On the audio I suggest Thomas Hariot sailed with Sir Francis Drake. Drake is thought to have returned to Europe with potatoes after his circumnavigation. However, Hariot was, in fact, an employee of Sir Walter Raleigh, and not connected with Drake’s voyage.
Resources Recommended by Our Guest
Sturtevant’s Edible Plants of the World –Edward Lewis Sturtevant – edited by UP Herrick, published by Dover Press, ISBN no 9780486204598.
Gerard’s Herball – or the Complete Historie of Plantes, originally published 1597 – various facimile copies: a good one is by Bracken Books, ISBN: 9780946495276.
And for the very last word on all things to do with growing potatoes, the International Potato Centre, https://cipotato.org/
Additional Related Resources Cassidy Thought You Might Enjoy:
Potatoes in Pharmacy by Christiane Staiger, January 2009 Pharmaceutical Historian 38(4):59-64 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/24042040_Potatoes_in_pharmacy
Medlars with our guest, Neil Buttery
Mentioned in 3 of Shakespeare’s plays, Medlars have a delightful place in culinary history of Shakespeare’s lifetime. Join our guest, Neil Buttery as he shares the history of this plant, what it looks and tastes like, as well as what it would have been used for in Shakespeare’s lifetime.
Who was the first to bring potatoes to England?
While I’ve read that Sir Francis Drake should get the credit, while others attribute the credit to Thomas Hariot, a botanist who sailed with Sir Walter Raleigh. Sally points out that,
“Nobody really knows! Popularly it’s Sir Francis Drake who gets the credit – there’s also a story that he tried potato fruits, which made him sick, so ordered his gardener to get rid of the plants and it was the gardener who first found you could eat the tubers, but that’s probably a myth. It was known as a food plant when it was imported & that the tubers were what you ate. It also may have been Hariot or John Hawkins who is supposed to have brought them to Ireland in 1565. There’s quite a bit of evidence that potatoes may have come via Spain by ordinary sailors who stopped off at the Canary Islands before heading home – barrels of potatoes were being exported in 1573 to Antwerp and 2 years later to Rouen. I’m sure if you’d were on your last but one stop back from a long voyage you’d want to bring something home, especially if it had erotic connotations or was rare & valuable….
Nightshades in general were highly poisonous
I know that for some Europeans any plant that was considered a nightshade carried some suspicion for its’ potential to be connected with witchcraft. Sally points out that there was a highly practical reason to be strongly suspicious of nightshades, since more of them were toxic.
More than likely because nightshades were known to be deadly poisonous rather than the witchcraft aspect. Potato flowers show they’re clearly part of the nightshade family. Most English (and European) nightshade family members are highly dangerous. It wasn’t until later when they were a little more widely grown that the name ‘devil’s apples’ began to be applied to the potato fruits. Tomatoes were distrusted for the same reason.
Potatoes as Food as Well As Curiosity
It was popular in England during Shakespeare’s lifetime to collect items that were being imported as exotic wares. This collection often included planting exotic plants in your garden, not as edible items, but as demonstrative plants you could show to your friends and visitors as a status symbol. Sally explains that the potato was imported as exotic wares, but was also recognized from the beginning of it’s life in Europe as a food item:
They were imported as an exotic food but so was the Jerusalem artichoke around the same time, which became well known for its wind-provoking indigestible qualities – and detested because of it. A lot of the new foods were regarded with suspicion. Mostly because they were so rare they were very expensive and so people thought they must be aphrodisiac – that’s where you get that reference in Falstaff with it raining potatoes, kissing comfits and eryngyo roots. Eryngo or sea holly was a prickly wild plant which grows by the seaside, and has a rather suggestive looking root -it was supposed to be the Elizabethan Viagra once it was cooked in sugar – another expensive imported luxury! Gerard says Virginia potatoes were eaten roasted in the ashes and were very pleasant eating.
16-17th Century Recipes for Potatoes
It can be hard to find evidence of exactly how potatoes were cooked for Shakespeare’s lifetime because not only are there not many surviving recipes, but as Sally points out, “they often get confused with the sweet potato, Ipomea batatas.” When they are cooked,
They were baked or ‘sodden with wine’, boiled and eaten with oil, vinegar and pepper: or made into a pie, usually with the mediaeval seasoning of sugar, pepper, ginger, nutmeg and saffron. Even in 1719, they are described as being “of less note than horseradish, radish, scorzoners, beets and skirrets: but as they have their admirers, I will not pass them by in silence” I’ve also seen a recipe from the 1650’s from Rabbisha’s Complet Cookebooke which put them in a pie with beef marrow, eryngyoes, spices and sugar with raisins…..
Ordinary people usually ate bread with things like oats or dried broad beans and dried peas made into pottage – probably mostly similar to Mushy Peas which is a traditional food in English pubs, usually eaten with faggots (little balls made from pig’s heart, liver & lights wrapped in caul fat) – usually served after some sort of sporting match such as darts or long-alley skittles.If you were rich you ate skirret as a root vegetable, with parsnips or turnips. Skirret is an umbelliferous plant with white flowers about 5ft tall, perennial – you can dig a root up, leave a bit and it grows again. It tastes good but has a little stringy bit in the middle which sticks in your teeth!
Shapes and Colors of Potatoes
Potatoes came in a variety of shapes and colors for Shakespeare’s lifetime. Sally points out some records that tell us about what kinds and varieties were present:
Clusius (who had been sent potatoes from the Pope) described them as round and red-skinned, or yellow and long. The English herbalist John Gerard’s potatoes were “round as a ball, oval or egg fashion”…Bauhin described them as violet coloured or variegated in 1596, and shaped like a penis. There are some interesting examples of what original Peruvian varieties probably looked like here: https://stories.rbge.org.uk/archives/29605
When people were growing gardens, there is some evidence to suggest that potatoes were grown decoratively.
Gerard the herbalist had a garden on the east side of Somerset House, the Barber Surgeon’s Hall which had over 1000 plants growing in, in London when Shakespeare was living nearby in Mugwell or Monkswell St. Shakespeare lived there from 1598-1604 -so he might have seen a potato plant. They certainly weren’t common as a garden plant, more a curiosity for the gardens of the very wealthy. The real problem with growing potatoes in England from those early samples would have been the change of daylight hours. In most of the subtropics the days are more or less the same, with the longest day being around 14 hours, but right now we have nearly 18 hours of daylight, so it would have been very hard to grow a crop here: the plants would have kept getting the wrong signals to grow leaves or tubers.
Sally points out that “daylength was kind of erratic and at the time of the broadcast near Midsummer Day we were getting nearly 18 hours of sunlight… but by August that will have shrunk already as we are losing 3or 4 minutes daily so we will only be getting around 15 hours – no wonder foreign plants get confused!”
17th C Drawings of Potatoes
Gerald claimed his engraving of a potato, in detail, showing fruit, flowers and tuber as well as leaves, was the first ever to be published in Europe. It was originally made for Clusius’s book which remained virtually unpublished the Rariorum Plantes Historuma in 1601 and was probably engraved by Jacob Tabernaemontanus.
I don’t think there are many of the original potatoes preserved as herbarium specimens, in those days their very crowded ships didn’t have the dry safe space on a voyage for collecting bulky files of dried plants. Dry(ish) space was obviously reserved for food! Botanists usually preferred making paintings or drawings and bringing back seeds.
Image at right: John Gerard is credited with the first drawing of potatoes, shown here. He believed they were from Virginia and this drawing is called “Virginia Potato” published in Gerard’s Herball (1597). Public Domain. Image Source
Related Episode From Our Back Catalog
For the 16th century, oranges were a staple item for seasonal eating on tables from the average person all the way to the nobility. The orange, the lemon, and sour oranges were in existence in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and they show up in his plays. Explore where oranges came from, how they arrived in England, and what Shakespeare is talking about when he mentions an “orange wife” as well as going “to the orange” is our guest, Dorian Fuller. Listen Now With Patreon
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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!