Object Lessons is a series of short, beautifully designed books about the hidden lives of ordinary things.
Baked potatoes, Bombay potatoes, pommes frites . . . everyone eats potatoes, but what do they mean? To the United Nations they mean global food security (potatoes are the world's fourth most important food crop). To 18th-century philosophers they promised happiness. Nutritionists warn that too many increase your risk of hypertension. For the poet Seamus Heaney they conjured up both his mother and the 19th-century Irish famine.
What stories lie behind the ordinary potato? The potato is entangled with the birth of the liberal state and the idea that individuals, rather than communities, should form the building blocks of society. Potatoes also speak about family, and our quest for communion with the universe. Thinking about potatoes turns out to be a good way of thinking about some of the important tensions in our world.
Object Lessons is published in partnership with an essay series in The Atlantic.
About the Author
Rebecca Earle is Professor in History at the University of Warwick, UK. She is the author of three books, including The Body of the Conquistador: Food, Race and the Colonial Experience in Spanish America, 1492-1700 (2012), which was Winner of the Conference on Latin America History 2013 Bolton-Johnson Prize, and The Return of the Native: Indians and Mythmaking in Spanish America, 1810-1930 (2008), which was Winner of the Conference on Latin American History's 2008 Bolton-Johnson Prize Honorable Mention. She has written about the history of food for The Conversation, BBC History Magazine, The Independent, and The Sunday Telegraph, among other publications.
“From its Andean home, the potato went almost everywhere in the world and thought about the potato went almost everywhere in the culture. Rebecca Earle elegantly follows the potato's travels through political economy, statecraft, nutritional science, gastronomy, religion, and literature. This is a marvellous historical mash-up of a food which did much to make modernity.”
Steven Shapin, Harvard University, and author of The Scientific Revolution (2nd ed., 2018) and A Social History of Truth (1994)
“Potato is a delight. Rebecca Earle writes vividly and with wonderful insight. Who could ever have thought that the entire world – cultures, ideologies, identity – could be decoded through the language of the humble spud? I'll never look at a potato the same way again.”
Ruby Tandoh, author of Eat Up: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want (2018)