Potatoes do politics

Few vegetables can claim to have shaped nations, sent the economy of a country tumbling, or played a starring role in diplomatic spats. But the humble potato can.

by: Karin Zeitvogel | 17 Oct 2007

In fried form, the potato took centre stage in the diplomatic row that broke out between Washington and Paris in 2003 when France refused to back the US-led invasion of Iraq. To show their ire with the French, US lawmakers had the cafeterias in the House of Representatives change the name of French fried potatoes to "freedom fries".

"This action is a small but symbolic effort to show the strong displeasure of many on Capitol Hill with the actions of our so-called ally, France," said Republican lawmaker Bob Ney of Ohio, at the time.

Ney was head of the House committee which was in charge of the canteens. Today, he is in jail for allowing his palm to be greased, not by freedom, French or any other form of fried potato, but by lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Special spuds
The impact of the humble tuber stretches back centuries. The population of Ireland was cut in half in the mid 1800s after the potato crop failed and a four-year famine ensued. The then agriculture-based Irish economy crumbled and the population plummeted from eight million to four million, through deaths from hunger and emigration. It only surpassed the four million mark in the 1990s, when Ireland entered an economic boom.

The massive wave of emigration from Ireland, sparked by the potato famine, shaped politics and history not only locally but also in the United States, the destination for the vast majority of those who left.

Patrick Kennedy, great grandfather of assassinated US president John F. Kennedy and his two senator brothers both emigrated to the United States in 1848 to escape the famine.

Having Irish heritage is a plus in a US political campaign, and even Barack Obama, the senator from Illinois who is hoping to become the first black US president, has Irish branches in his family tree. More than a century and a half ago, Obama's great-great-great-grandfather on his mother's side, Falmouth Kearney, set sail from Ireland for the United States. He arrived in New York in March 1850.

In 1985, children's toy Mr Potato Head got four votes in the mayoral election in Boise, Idaho, the biggest potato-producing state in the United States.

Potatoes and politics
The potato has also shaped European politics. Polish President Lech Kaczynski cancelled a summit meeting last year with his German and French counterparts, just days after German newspaper Die Tageszeitung published a satirical article about Kaczynski and his prime minister twin brother Jaroslaw, entitled "Poland's new potatoes".

Kaczynski cited illness for the last-minute cancellation but the media and analysts speculated that the real reason was his distaste for being compared with a potato.

British potato farmers have marched on the houses of parliament in London to demand that the term "couch potato" be removed from the dictionary. They argued the expression, which is derived from the slang word for a television, "tube", which gave rise to "tubers" for those who spent hours hunkered down on the sofa gazing at it gave the impression that potatoes are bad for the health and, therefore, bad for their business.

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