I bought a battered paperback copy of Gerard’s Historie of Plants this week, and I have been wandering his Elizabethan garden ever since. A contemporary of William Shakespeare, John Gerard wrote a vast and delightful old-time herbal cataloging the “Vertues” of medicinal plants ranging from calves’-snout (snapdragon) which can be worn as a garland necklace to protect against witches, to a meadow wildflower called jack-go-to-bed-at-noon — which, when boiled and served up with butter, “strentheneth those that have been sicke of a long lingring disease.”
Gerard was a prominent figure in his day, a 1636 horticultural celebrity with friends in the royal court. Travellers to exotic places collected plants for him. New specimens for his garden crossed the ocean in the hold of Sir Francis Drake’s ship. And yet, in the formal portrait created for the frontispiece of the Historie, he’s not holding his exotic Persian Lily (“the vertue of this admirable plant is not yet knowne”) but the stem of the humble potato. As it turns out, Gerard’s famous book was a stepping-stone on the spud’s journey from the temples of the ancient Inca to the inside of those little cardboard boxes at McDonald’s.
Gerard, ever inquisitive, was one of the first Europeans to grow and eat potatoes. In Spain, they were considered “edible stones,” a bizarre novelty unfit for the table. In Scotland, the tuber was condemned as unholy because there were no potatoes in the Bible. In France, depending on which doctor you asked, you would be told that potatoes were related to belladonna, and were therefore poisonous. Or, at the very least, they were the cause of leprosy. Either way, France passed a law making the cultivation of potatoes a serious crime.
None of this discouraged Gerard. He enthusiastically included the potato in his Historie of Plants, writing an entry that would go far to win the much-maligned vegetable a place in Old World kitchens. It reads nearly like poetry: “From the bosome of the leaves come forth long round slender footstalkes, whereon grow very faire and pleasant floures.”
Here we are, four centuries later. Gerard’s charming Historie is still in print and world potato production is upward of 300 million metric tons. Potatoes are no longer an exclusively Western menu item — in fact, China is now the world’s biggest grower of Gerard’s source of dietary “goodnesse and wholsomenesse.” I think the Elizabethan gardener would be proud.
As for cooking instructions, Gerard suggests “being either rosted in the embers, or boiled and eaten with oile, vineger and pepper, or dressed some other way by the hand of a skilfull Cooke.”