A Cultural History of the Potato as Earth Apple


The etymology of the word ‘apple’ takes us back to the Early Middle Ages, when it appeared in various related forms across the Germanic languages: as ‘apful’/’aphul’ or ‘apfel’/’aphel’ in Old High German, ‘appel’ in Old Frisian, ‘appul’ in Old Saxon, ‘epli’ in Old Icelandic, ‘æplæ’ or ‘æpæl’ in Old Danish, and so on. At the time, the word referred sometimes to the fruit we call ‘apple’ today; occasionally to the pomegranate; but often it referred broadly to any round fruit which happened to grow on a tree.

In Old High German, and on into Old English and Middle Dutch, the term ‘earth apple’ (‘erdaphul’, ‘eorðæpla’, ‘erdappel’) came to be used to refer – in addition to the mandrake and cyclamen plants – to types of cucumber and melon. ‘Eorðæpla’ appears in this context, for instance, in the Old English Hexateuch: the earliest English manuscript of the first six books of the Old Testament, which contains more than 400 illustrations, and dates from the middle of the 11th century. The manuscript contains a sentence which states, ‘We hæfdon cucumeres, þæt sind eorðæpla, & pepones’.

The common potato had been cultivated in the Peruvian and Bolivian Altiplano from as far back as 8000 BC, and went on to become the staple food of the region throughout the period of the Inca Empire. By way of Spanish explorers returning from the Andes, it was introduced to Europe around the middle of the 16th century. In fact, the first explicit reference to the potato within European literature is credited to the Spanish conquistador Pedro Cieza de León, whose chronicles of Peru, Crónicas del Perú, were first published in 1553; yet by 1567 potatoes had arrived in Antwerp, and by the beginning of the 1570s they were being eaten regularly in Spain and beyond. The earliest extant European recipe for potatoes comes from a German cookbook, entitled Ein new Kochbuch, written by Marx Rumpolt – who became head cook for the Elector of Mainz after working in Bohemia and Hungary – and published in 1581. The recipe refers to:

‘Earth apples. Peel and cut them small, simmer them in water and press it well out through a fine cloth; chop them small and fry them in bacon that is cut small; take a little milk there under and let it simmer therewith so it is good and well tasting.’ 

Illustration of potatoes in Carolus Clusius’s Rariorum plantarum historia, Antwerp, Officina Plantiniana, 1601

In 1576, the Flemish botanist Carolus Clusius published the results of his research into the rare flora of Spain, in Rariorum aliquot stirpium per Hispanias observatarum historia. The potato was surprisingly absent from his work; but by 1601, when Rariorum plantarum historia brought together and updated his studies of Spain and Central Europe, the potato did appear, with Clusius’s description accompanied by a woodcut illustration. By this point, the potato had already been illustrated in print: in 1597, in John Gerard’s The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, which offered the first description of the potato in English; and in the 1598 herbal of the Italian Pietri Andreae Matthioli. However, having received potato tubers from Belgium the previous year, in 1589 Clusius received from the Belgian artist Philippe de Sevres a watercolor painting of the potato plant – and this watercolour stands today, in the collection of the Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp, as the first European illustration of the potato.

Watercolour by Philippe de Sevres, given to Carolus Clusius in 1589: the first European illustration of the potato. Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp

The potato spread throughout Europe from two directions: from Spain, and also from England, where it is alleged to have been introduced via either the seafaring Sir Francis Drake, or the astronomer and mathematician Thomas Harriot, who had travelled to the Americas in the 1580s in the company of Sir Walter Raleigh. By the beginning of the 1600s, the potato was making an appearance on the Renaissance stage. In the final act of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor – published in 1602, but believed to have been written before 1597 – Falstaff waits dressed as Herne the Hunter, with antlers adorning his head, in the hopes of spending ‘a cool rut time’ with Mistresses Ford and Page. When Mistress Ford addresses her ‘male deer’, Falstaff responds:

‘My doe with the black scut! Let the sky rain
potatoes; let it thunder to the tune of Green
Sleeves, hail kissing-comfits and snow eringoes; let
there come a tempest of provocation, I will shelter me here.’

But there was some confusion within the English language concerning the precise denotation of the word ‘potato’. The sweet potato had followed a markedly similar trajectory to the common potato: with its origins in Central America and Peru from around 8000 BC, the sweet potato became fundamental to the diet of Central America, in the process spreading across South America, to the Caribbean, and later to Polynesia. The first European contact with the sweet potato came with Christopher Columbus’s voyages to the ‘New World’ between 1492 and 1503. Returning with Columbus, sweet potatoes became popular among European royalty in the first half of the 1500s. The Spanish historian Fernández de Oviedo wrote that they tasted ‘just like fine marzipan’; while in 1565 the English naval commander Sir John Hawkins remarked that, in his opinion, they ‘be the most delicate rootes that may be eaten, and doe far exceede our passeneps or carets’.

The Taíno people of the Caribbean called the sweet potato ‘batata’, and this word was adopted for the root vegetable by the Portuguese. However, in Spain, ‘batata’ soon became conflated with ‘papa’ – the word in the Quechuan language, spoken in the Andes, for the common potato. The result was that in Spanish, the common potato came to be referred to as ‘patata’.

Illustration of the sweet potato plant in Carolus Clusius’s Rariorum plantarum historia, Antwerp, Officina Plantiniana, 1601

In England for much of the early 16th century, ‘potato’ had indicated simply the sweet potato. Confusion arose however upon the introduction to the country of the white-fleshed variety. Sir Walter Raleigh’s exploration of the New World had resulted in the naming of Virginia – which in 1607 would become the first colony of England. Mistakenly believing that the crop which was now appearing in England was native to the region, writers including John Gerard took to naming the common potato the ‘Virginian potato’ to distinguish it from its sweet – and in fact largely unrelated – counterpart. Others dubbed the common potato the ‘bastard potato’. Owing to the early date of Falstaff’s reference, and his invocation of the potato as a sort of aphrodisiac, we may infer that he was invoking the sweet potato in The Merry Wives of Windsor. But with the ‘Virginian’ appellation only haphazardly used before falling entirely out of favour, from the end of the 1500s and throughout the following century, it is difficult to determine which version – sweet or common – is being referred to when the word ‘potato’ is used in English-language texts.

Despite the rapidity of its emergence, competing with the carrot and parsnip in England, and the turnip in France, the common potato was slow to win public acclaim. While officials gradually began to promote its uptake among the peasantry, in France the potato was associated with leprosy, and in Italy was utilised predominantly as animal feed. In the British Isles, however, the common potato took hold in Ireland – purportedly having been introduced there by Sir Walter Raleigh, who is rumoured to have planted a crop on his estate at Myrtle Grove, Youghal, County Cork. In the 1700s, Frederick William I and Frederick II of Prussia advanced the cause of the common potato, while in some German regions its planting was enforced by law. And the French too began to be won over, thanks to the considerable efforts of Antoine-Augustin Parmentier. Most importantly, it was seen that the potato was good for averting famine. In the 1750s, an English Board of Agriculture went so far as to declare, ‘Potatoes and water alone, with common salt, can nourish men completely’.

Although – despite the prolonged confusion – ‘potato’ had been entrenched in English and ‘patata’ consolidated in Spanish, the rest of continental Europe diverged when it came to deciding upon the name of the ordinary crop. German-speaking Europe vacillated between three different designations. ‘Kartoffel’ arose apparently by virtue of a mistake, which has been attributed to Carolus Clusius: stemming from an erroneous categorisation of potatoes as ‘little truffles’, ‘tartuffolo’ in Italian, whose etymological root is in the Latin ‘tuber’, meaning a swelling or lump. ‘Kartoffel’ would ultimately win out in the north, but it was challenged through the 1600s and on into the 1700s by ‘erdapfel’, a reemergence of the centuries-old concept of an ‘earth apple’, and by ‘grundbirne’, which means ‘ground pear’.

October, by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1878). Oil on canvas. 181 cm x 196 cm. National Gallery of Victoria

Together, these four very different terms – ‘potato’/’patata’, ‘kartoffel’, ‘erdapfel’, and ‘grundbirne’ – would haggle and disperse over Europe. In Sweden, for instance, ‘potatis’ is now used – but only after largely replacing the earlier ‘jordpäron’. In Icelandic, the word for potato is ‘kartafla’. While ‘kartoffel’ is standard in northern Germany and ‘grundbirne’ long fell out of use, ‘erdapfel’ remains the word for potato in Austria, and parts of southern Germany and Switzerland. The flowing of forms has become a torrent in Slovakia, where there are 31 distinct terms for the potato.

In France, though ‘cartoufle’ was briefly used in the early years of the potato, it soon became known as ‘pomme de terre’. Likewise the Dutch held on to the idea of the earth apple, calling the potato ‘aardappel’. And something of this sensibility would show through when, in the works of Vincent van Gogh, the potato found its highest artistic expression. Between the autumn of 1882 and the spring of 1885, in The Hague then in Nuenen, Van Gogh completed eighteen paintings and more than twenty drawings highlighting the potato. These culminated in The Potato Eaters, which Van Gogh worked on in April 1885 and completed at the beginning of May. For years, Van Gogh considered The Potato Eaters his best work. In letters to his brother Theo at the time of the painting, he depicted the colour of his figures as ‘something like the colour of a really dusty potato, unpeeled of course’, and wrote:

‘You see, I really have wanted to make it so that people get the idea that these folk, who are eating their potatoes by the light of their little lamp, have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labour and — that they have thus honestly earned their food.’

The Potato Eaters, by Vincent van Gogh (1885). Oil on canvas. 82 cm x 114 cm. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

The arrival of the potato in Russia has been asserted as the result of the months Peter the Great spent in the Netherlands in 1697. Enamoured with the Dutch ‘aardappel’, Peter is reported to have sent a sack of potatoes home to Russia to Count Boris Sheremetev. Whatever, the potato remained rare in Russia until 1765, when the Governing Senate – responding to outbreaks of illness which owed to insufficient grain – ordered the widespread cultivation of the crop. In 1770, the esteemed agriculturalist and memoirist Andrey Bolotov published a paper ‘Примечания о картофеле, или земляное яблоках’ (‘Primechaniya o kartofele, ili zemlyanoyeh yabluhkakh‘), which translates as ‘Remarks on the potato, or earth apples’. Yet by the turn of the 19th century, though there had been significant uptake among the nobility, the potato was still being roundly ignored by Russia’s peasants.

As Bolotov’s paper indicates, in the early days of the potato in Russia, it went by two names: ‘Картофель’ (‘kartofel‘), from the German ‘kartoffel’; and ‘Земляное яблоко’  (‘zemlyanoyeh yabluhkuh‘), which means ‘earth apple’, and drew upon the French ‘pomme de terre’. The Russian nobility during the time of Catherine the Great, particularly in the capital Saint Petersburg, were – in the words of the historian Orlando Figes – ‘totally immersed in French culture’. Count Pyotr Sheremetev, Boris’s son, rebuilt the family’s Fountain House on the Fontanka river replete with a library of 20,000 books, most of which were in French. French tutors taught the children of the nobility, and French was the language of officialdom, high society, and letters. This relationship wavered somewhat towards the end of the 1700s, as Russians began to negotiate an identity equally as part of and in contrast to Europe; and it faltered more severely in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and the French invasion of Russia of 1812. Still, the strength of the connection with French culture meant that ‘Земляное яблоко’ continued to be the favoured term for the potato into the beginning of the 1800s.

‘Картофель’ won out through the course of the 19th century, and is the word Russians use for the potato today. ‘Картошка’ (‘kartoshka‘) is a diminutive form. In other Slavic languages the word for potato remains embedded in the concept of ‘Земля’, the earth. The Polish word for potato is ‘ziemniak’, from ‘ziemia’, which means earth or ground; while of the 31 regional Slovak variations, ‘zemiaky’, from ‘zem’, is standard.

The potato offers anecdotal engagement with the Golden Age of Russian literature. Alexander Pushkin grew up at home and at school immersed in French, which was for him a second native language. Upon entering the newly opened Lycée at Tsarskoe Selo in 1811, aged twelve, the headmaster’s private note on the young pupil read: ‘Empty-headed and thoughtless. Excellent at French and drawing, lazy and backward at arithmetic’. By the age of fourteen, he had read a vast body of French literature, and could recite many passages by heart. Yet writing in the 1830s in the short fragment ‘Egyptian Nights’, Pushkin was identifying himself when he described a poet who ‘preferred baked potatoes to any concoctions of a French cuisine’. Baked potatoes were Pushkin’s favourite food. He is reported to have particularly enjoyed the dish served with the potato skins left intact. Elsewhere, the titular character of Gogol’s story Taras Bulba is a Ukrainian reference to the potato. Gogol’s fiction abounds in allusions to food; and in ‘The Carriage’ he depicts ‘One extremely fat landowner with short arms, somewhat resembling two potatoes growing on him’. For this characterisation, Gogol used ‘картофеля’.

Still Life: Potatoes in a Yellow Dish, by Vincent van Gogh (1888). Oil on canvas. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

Potatoes remained unpopular among the Russian peasantry – with their combination of disinterest and distrust compounded by the Old Believers, who compared the potato to the forbidden fruit of Genesis – until 1840. Following unrest in 1834, in 1840 the Russian government issued a decree ordering peasants to grow potatoes on some of their most fertile land. While the similar order of 1765 had scarcely been upheld, this time the government sought to enforce their wish. In the words of Alexander Herzen, from his autobiography My Past and Thoughts – translated into English by Constance Garnett, in an edition introduced by Isaiah Berlin:

‘Like the peasantry of all Europe at one time, the Russian peasants were not very keen on planting potatoes, as though an instinct told the people that this was a trashy kind of food which would give them neither health nor strength. However, on the estates of decent landowners and in many Crown villages ‘earth apples’ had been planted long before the potato terror. But anything that is done of itself is distasteful to the Russian government. Everything must be done under threat of the stick and the drill-sergeant, and by numbers.’

In the central and lower Volga regions, particularly round Kazan, and in Kirov and in the Urals, the peasants revolted against this decree. Herzen depicts this revolt as a gradual process. A misunderstanding regarding the damage done to potatoes by frost appears to have persisted in the Russian Empire from the introduction of the crop in the 1700s. Herzen recounts the peasants protesting only when asked by the authorities to plant frozen potatoes: ‘There cannot, indeed, be a more flagrant insult to labour than a command to do something obviously absurd’. A compromise was agreed between the peasants and local officials, who extracted a small fee in return for allowing the peasants to plant whatever they pleased. But in the fourth year of this compromise, with the peasants resenting the fee and more pressure being exerted by the government, the situation descended into violent revolt.

The 1917 edition of Elena Molokhovets’ cookbook Подарок молодым хозяйкам, translated as A Gift to Young Housewives

As Herzen remarks, ‘It is enough to say that it came to using grape-shot and bullets’. Up to half a million peasants engaged in the revolt, and by 1844 there had been numerous shootings, while thousands of peasants were tried, convicted, and exiled to Siberia. Despite the revolt, the government had succeeded in curbing resistance to the potato. However difficult it had been to achieve, by the late 1800s potatoes had become a core component of the Russian table. Elena Molokhovets’ famed cookbook Подарок молодым хозяйкам (‘Podaruhk molodym hozyahykam‘), translated as A Gift to Young Housewives, contained recipes for the potato from its first edition of 1861. Many more were added as Molokhovets continued to revise the book up until 1917; with the work – although criticised for disparaging the peasantry, and later banned in the Soviet Union – passing through twenty-four editions by 1904. Meanwhile the potato came to be referred to as a ‘second bread’; and found much added value in the production of Russian vodka.

Beyond Europe, the potato also appears in the formulation ‘earth apple’ in Haitian Creole, Persian, and Hebrew. In Meir Shalev’s The Blue Mountain – a novel about Russian Jews settling in the Jezreel Valley in Palestine in the early years of the 20th century – Levin chastises a theatrical return-to-the-soil movement:

‘You people never had any appreciation of plain ordinary work. You were too busy acting in your great Theater of Redemption and Rebirth. Every plowing was a return to the earth, every chicken laid the first Jewish egg after 2,000 years of exile. Ordinary potatoes, the same kartoffelakh you at in Russia, became taphuchei adamah, “earth apples”, to show how you were one with Nature.’

The ‘Erdapfel’ produced by Martin Behaim between 1491 and 1494: the oldest surviving globe of the world

‘Earth apple’ also refers outside the realm of food. The ‘Erdapfel’ produced by Martin Behaim between 1491 and 1494, now in the collection of the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, is considered to be the oldest surviving terrestrial globe. With Columbus’s voyages just underway, the globe does not feature the Americas. Earth Apples, published posthumously in 1994, is equally the title of the only collection of poetry by the American author and environmentalist Edward Abbey.

1 Comment

  • I want you to know that this is a wonderful piece and I’ve read it multiple times. Great work, excellent subject matter. And I love the art pieces.

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