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Cuestiones con Cruz: What significance do potatoes hold in Latin America?

Potatoes hold more significance to Latin America than one might think. Although many people associate the carbohydrate with the British Isles, the roots (literally) of potatoes lie in Latin America, specifically the Andes region of present-day Peru, Bolivia and parts of Ecuador to name a couple of countries.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, the potato is the fifth-most important crop worldwide after wheat, corn, rice and sugarcane. Despite the crop's origin place, the leading potato producers today are China, India, Russia and Ukraine, according to the BBC

The history of the tuber goes back at least 8,000 years ago, when the potato was domesticated in the South American Andes, specifically near Lake Titicaca in Peru. This makes its journey to Europe in the mid-1500s seem recent. Although the potato is famous for contracting a disease known as Phytophthora infestans in 1845 in Ireland, the crop is not technically Irish. According to Rebecca Earle, author of "Feeding the People: The Politics of the Potato," this is a common misconception of people to claim the potato for their own country. 

"Despite its origins in the Andes, it's an incredibly successful global food," said Earle. "It's grown practically everywhere in the world, and practically everywhere, people consider it one of 'our foods'."

Earle calls the potato the "world's most successful immigrant."

After its domestication, the potato was a crucial food supply for Indigenous communities from the region. Most notably, the Incas developed a method of placing potatoes in freezing rivers and then leaving them under the sun to dry to dehydrate the substance. This makes the vegetable storable for up to 15 years. This substance is known as chuño and is still consumed today.

As of right now, there are over 5,000 different varieties of potato, all preserved by Peru's International Potato Center. Among other things, the organization also aims to preserve smallholder potato farmers and uphold the vegetable's nutritional value.

The Incas quickly realized some of the variations of the potato were toxic. Upon observing that vicuñas, or wild camelids of South America, could safely eat the poisonous tubers by licking edible clay, the Incas did so as well. Interestingly enough, the clay somehow neutralized toxins and made them edible.

It is said when the Spanish arrived in Peru in 1532, they were not dazzled by the vegetable. However, they eventually changed their tune and adopted it as a staple for feeding their navy as they crossed the Atlantic. The potato made its first appearance in Spain in 1570, where it was greeted with more less-than-open arms. Of course, famine and other such afflictions led the hungry citizens of Europe to change their minds about the complex carbohydrate.

Nowadays, potatoes are still very much a part of the Latin American diet. Popular dishes such as papas chorreadas from Colombia, milcao from Chile, llapingacho from Ecuador and, of course, papa rellena from Peru are all reflective of the importance potatoes hold in Latin American cuisine. 

Aside from being delicious, potatoes can also benefit your health. The minerals in them such as iron, phosphorus and calcium, can help to build healthy bones. Additionally, the fiber and potassium present can support heart health.

Furthermore, the Incas used potatoes to treat injuries, predict weather and even to make childbirth easier. Even their time revolved around the crop, with Incan units of time corresponding with the length of time it took to cook a potato. 

So next time you're whipping mashed potatoes, boiling some gnocchi or dunking tater tots in ketchup, remember the origins of the potato and what it took to find its way to your plate and be oh-so-delicious. 

Alyssa Cruz is a sophomore studying journalism and Spanish at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnist do not reflect those of The Post. What are your thoughts? Tell Alyssa by tweeting her at @alyssadanccruz.

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