I grew up loving potatoes, especially what I learned, as a young immigrant, were called “French Fries” in the USA. So, I had taken for granted that potatoes, like wheat, rice, corn, beans, and other edibles, had been cultivated since antiquity. But it was not so for the beloved potato.

If I had lived in the days of the Greek Revolution in the 1820s, I would not only never have tasted, seen, or even heard of this wonderful “Pomme de Terre” (as the French call it) or the “Γεώμηλο” (the Greek translation, “Fruit of the Earth” as it was first known).

It turns out that the natives of Central America (modern Chile, Peru, Colombia) were cultivating potatoes for medicinal purposes as far back as the 8th Century AD. In the 15th century, early explorers, such as the Spanish and the English, brought potatoes to Europe, and some cultivation had started, but with relatively little progress. People then ate mostly grains—bread—as their staple.

Along came a famine, two cruel weather years in Ireland, which wiped out their crop, including potatoes, in 1770. (This was not the famous famine of 1845 that brought the Irish to America, but an earlier one.) Nevertheless, it brought potatoes to the forefront of European attention.

However, there was prejudice and concern from the naturally ignorant European populace about this strange and potentially dangerous root, and it was not well–received. But cooler heads of State, like the King of France, utilized the suspicious “cleverness” of the peasants to fool them into accepting them. He posted armed guards around the garden plots when the first crops were ready. The word was naturally passed around that these fruits of the Earth were valuable and only for the aristocrats, so when the guards were (cleverly) removed at night, the fields were mobbed by the local yokels, eager to eat what was a food reserved for the rich.

By the 1820s, many Greek merchants living in Europe had become familiar with the value of the potato as a staple and wanted to introduce it to the Greeks. Around 1826, the potato arrived in Greece, and it became widely known by 1829. It was offered to the peasantry to plant, but there were few takers at first. The story is that the first Greek governor, Capodistrias, used the same ploy as the French to dump a shipload of potatoes on the harbor’s pier and guard it with armed soldiers – who had received instructions to “turn a blind eye to thieves.” Overnight, the entire load had disappeared!

It is well known that the forbidden fruit is always sweeter in human nature! In this case, it was the “Fruit of the Earth.”