Episode 80 - Alphabetti Spaghetti on a Potato Bouquet (Sides Week)
Updated: Oct 12
Well, Tom, I know you’re a big fan of the cycling, and whilst we’re recording this, the Tour De France is on. So, let’s say you’re a hungry cyclist in the Alps, and all that EPO flowing through your veins has gotten you a frightful hunger on, so you pop into a little French café for some delicious French cuisine.
And what could be more French than the traditional leek and potato soup, followed by shepherd’s pie, with a potato salad on the side, and some fried potatoes for a bit of carbohydrate.
Now, you’d think, Tom, that you’d merely say, in your best French accent, bonjour monsieur waiter, je voudrais un soup du jour, un pie due shepherd, un salad NE PAS du actual vetetables but with plus du mayonnaise, et some fried potatoes pour le carbs.
But no, Tom. You’d have to ask for crème Parmentier, followed by hachis Parmentier, with Salad parmentier and garniture parmentier. Pour un bit of carbohydrate.
So, given potato in French is pomme de terre or apple of the Earth, why is everything potato-related called Parmentier?
Well, it’s because of marketing genius and pioneering dietician Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, born in 1737, who realised in the late 18th and early 19th Century that France needed the spud like it needed cigarettes, wine and extramarital affairs.
Now, like most good stories about the French in this period, it begins with France losing a war, and Antoine, a French military pharmacist, ending up in a Prussian prisoner of war camp. Parmentier found himself facing the ultimate disgrace – being forced to eat animal food in order to survive. Was it swill? Grass? Alfalfa? Carrots and sugar lumps? No, Tom. It was far worse than all of those. He was fed boiled potatoes. EUGH!
Now, the potato had been introduced into Europe around 150 years previously – first to Spain by returning conquistadors, and then to Ireland by Basque fishermen stopping off on their way across the Atlantic. From Spain, its popularity had spread to northern Italy, where it grew well in the alpine foothills, and to Germany, where the Prussians had realised that here was a food that could revolutionise warfare, even forcing peasants to grow them and distributing seeds.
Because until now, everyone had relied on grain. Which was great, but it had problems – it needed a lot of processing into bread or porridge which wouldn’t keep, so you needed to carry or steal huge amounts of wheat, and equipment to mill and bake it. If the wheat ran out or a raiding army stole your supplies or burned your fields, you were fucked. But the potato was different. It could be pulled out of the ground, washed off, thrown into any heat source and eaten. It kept for weeks or more. And it was very hard to destroy a potato crop, since, being below ground, it couldn’t be burned. Also, potatoes grew where wheat didn’t, in high, wet, exposed conditions. So it was a win, win, win.
To the rest of Europe, though, this was madness. The potato was at best food for pigs, and at worst people thought it was actively poisonous to humans. The church considered it vaguely medicinal, but to be used only sparingly, given that it was known as ‘The Devil’s apples’. Which if you’ve ever tried to eat a raw one, isn’t too far from the truth.
Parmentier was sold, though. He immediately saw the benefits over wheat, especially during sieges, which, being French, he was quite used to.
Unfortunately, France had banned the potato on the grounds that it caused leaprosy and was essentially the sperm of Satan, so upon his release, Parmentier dedicated his career to proving the benefits of the spud.Eventually, in 1772, he managed to convince the Government that the potato wasn’t poisonous, and was given a grant to experiment with them on patients with dysentery at the Invalides hospital in Paris where he worked. I mean experiment as in feeding them to the patients, not creating a dystentry/potato/human hybrid. A giant, shitting mr potato head. Other anthropomorphic vegetables are available.
Unfortunately, the church owned the hospital land, and upon discovering that he was growing Satans apples, he was promptly fired.
Not deterred, he got a job at the Free School of Bakery, rather than the school of indentured loaves or the Paul Hollywood Academy for delinquent bun-fondlers. His job, as a dietary chemist, was to try and find new things that the French could eat or bake to replace bread when food inevitably ran short during, oh I don’t know, repeated sieges.
He pretty quickly worked out that potato could be dried and turned into flour to make a passable bread, but no one wanted to eat it. He’d proven the science, now he just needed to market the vegetable. And he had a genius series of ideas.
Parmentier knew that fashion followed the rich. Whatever they were doing, the poor would follow. So, he just needed to make the potato sexy. Slutty Mrs Potato Head. As we used to call Coleen Rooney.
He hosted banquets at which potatoes featured prominently, with such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin in attendance, and at which every dish was potato-based. The noblemen and scientists in attendance rushed home to tell their friends, who then wanted in on the action. As, of course, did the papers.
He delivered bouquets of potato flowers to the King and Queen, which they must have been thrilled with. Ooh, I love what you’ve done with the curly fries. A dozen potato smilies, how romantic. Finally managed to convince your partner to try anal? Nothing says I love you like a sloppy joe.
But his real master stroke was in pretending he DIDN’T want you, the commoner, to have potatoes. To do this, he had his fields surrounded in the day by armed guards, who would drive off anyone who came too close.
Then, at night, he paid the guards to be lax, get drunk, and fall asleep on the job. He essentially made potatoes easy to steal, and worth stealing. If this was a crop delicious and valuable enough to warrant an armed guard, it must be worth nicking. As soon as the illicit spuds found their way into the restaurants of the middle classes and eventually the poor, people were queuing around the block to get their hands on them. Forget queuing at the apple store, there were queues at the potato store. Especially when there was a new model out, with updated chips.
There were a few natural disasters to help him on his way, of course. A crop failure in 1785 meant France was short on grain, but now had enough potatoes to at least help the situation. In 1789, he published: “Treatise on the Culture and Use of the Potato, Sweet Potato, and Jerusalem Artichoke”, the first potato recipe book, by order of King Louis 16th. It wasn’t just potatoes, though: He dedicated his whole life to feeding and protecting the French people, improving wine and cheese making, pioneering early refrigeration techniques, and improving drinking water supplies. He developed mushrooming as an industry rather than just a hobby, and started the first mandatory smallpox vaccination campaign under Napoleon, beginning in 1805 when he was Inspector-General of the Health Service – so clearly being an old royalist hadn’t held him back.
He eventually died in 1812 and is buried in a grave surrounded by potato plants, and engraved with happy peasants growing potato seeds. So there you go, Tom, Antoine-Augustin Parmentier. Marketer, food pioneer, and all around Top Homme.
Tom's Notes; Izanami and Izanagi
This was a very tricky one, largely because I committed myself to not doing anything British. I also didn’t want to then do something Classical (because when I’m not doing something British, I’m doing something Classical, and when I’m not doing something classical, I’m talking about a shipwreck and the resulting misery, cannibalism and amused native onlookers).
I looked into people changing sides, so turncoats, but when you commit to doing nothing British, Roman or Greek, this really does remove most of the good stories! I almost committed myself to the Wars of the Diadochi, or as it’s more commonly known, The Hellenistic Royal Rumble:
“Oh my god, Ptolemy is on the top rope! And boom! The Pharaoh Flop! That’s gotta hurt!”
“Antigonus has got a hold of Asander, he’s picking him up above his head! And Smash! The satrap suplex!”
“Seleucus is getting back in the ring, oh no! He’s got a steel chair! But not any steel chair, it’s a Macedonian one that’s 2 inches longer that the normal ones! He’s gonna be unbeatable! Bam! There goes Cassander!”
I then started exploring the idea of two-sides, or dualism, in mythology. For example, Ying and Yang, and good and evil twins. It is here that I came across Izanagi and Izanami, twins from Japanese mythology. Their story is great because it’s really stupid.
Now before I go on, an honourable mention: Odziozo from Algonquin mythology. The Algonquin are a grouping on Indigenous Americans from around the Quebec region. This honourable mention has nothing to do with the theme, I just thought it was funny but it wouldn’t have the legs to be a full contribution to a future episode.
I mention legs, because Odziozo is a legendary giant who roamed North America before legs were invented, and presumably before man roamed the earth because he would have been quite an inconvenience to a hunter gather lifestyle; squashing all the wildebeest with his arse and destroying all the crab apple trees with his knackers, although you’d hope it provided some relief for his apple crabs. I say ‘invented’ because this is the word used on a few of the websites detailing this myth, Odziozo was evidently quite the mythological Dyson, investing heavily in R&D.
So he had arms, and a head, but no legs, or according to some versions of the myth, very slow growing ones. I imagine he looked quite similar to you in shorts at the gym Sam. So, this giant was forced to drag his legless torso around North America, in doing so, creating rivers and valleys. He also occasionally through mud into the air randomly, “goddam! All I want is some legs like all the other giants!” and thus creating hills and mountains. There is a place called Rock Dunder in Canadia, a popular destination for Canadan hikers, where apparently this little-legged colossus finally died.
Now, onto the main subject: Izanagi and Izanami. These two characters are from Japanese creation myth. They are brother and sister and I’ll be honest, I am stretching the theme of ‘sides’ to breaking point here.
These two gods emerged out of the heavens and create the first Japanese landmass by stirring the primordial soup with a magic jewelled spear. They stood on this landmass and thought; wouldn’t it be nice to have incestuous shag? Of course it would! But of course, this mustn’t happen before they’ve built a pillar and walked around it. So they commenced a ceremony whereby they walked around the pillar in opposite directions. Major fuck-up! When they met on the other side of the spear, Izanami, the women, spoke first forgetting she is subservient on account of her womb. So, when Izanami eventually gives birth, it is to a Hiruko, who had no limbs or bones. In fact, the name ‘Hiruko’ translates as ‘leech child’. This is clearly very unfair because my understanding is that not all children are leeches, just teenage ones. Being the good parents that they were, Izanagi and Izanami said ‘yuk, what on earth is that!?’ and when he was 3 years old, and showing no signs of improvement, set Hiruko adrift on the primordial soup. Resilience Sam; it’s what kids today are missing.
I say resilience, Hiruko did well, he eventually grew limbs (and presumably bones), was washed ashore and became the god Ebisu, a god of fishermen and luck. There is also a Japanese beer, Yebisu, names after him. They use the taglines; “for the legless to get legless”. That joke also works as “for the half-cut to get half-cut”.
So we’ve had a bit of incest, now infanticide (well, very bad parenting). What next?
Not deterred by their first progeny, the two gods went at it some more and poor old Izanami had to give birth to a number of Japan’s islands and spent the rest of her life pissing herself every time she coughed, because pushing out an island ain’t good for the pelvic floor.
Once the islands were out, Izanami gave birth to a host of gods. I say gave-birth; most of them just fell out by this point and Izanami found it difficult to know if anything had happened. Although one baby god certainly made his presence felt; Kagutsuchi. Kagutsuchi is the god of fire and he burnt her nether regions to smithereens! She died immediately after giving birth.
Izanagi was livid! Being the good father that he was, he killed Kagutsuchi with a ‘10 grasp sword’ and more gods emerged from the body and blood of this murdered infant. A few gods also emerged out of Izanagi’s poo; they were the gods who joined the heavenly queue late.
“First up, who wants to be the god of cream buns?! Then VIP tickets to gigs? What about being the god of volleyball team changing rooms?”
5 hours later…
“God of shit? We’ve got God of haemorrhoids, children’s car seat installation and Christmas shopping. Nobody’s claimed god of garden rape either; hold-on, no, that was taken by that very aggressive midget that looked like Alan Titchmarsh.”
Izanagi was desperate to see his wife again so descended to the underworld , or Yomi, to try to rescue her. Unfortunately, Izanami had already consumed food of the underworld, Pringles in fact, and so could not return, “once your clogs have popped, you just can’t stop”.
Izanagi was not deterred by this and shone a light on the cave where Izanami lay, revealing her to be a rotting corpse. Nice. Ashamed of her odour and poor complexion, and burnt fanny, Izanami cursed Izanagi and sent the Hags of Hell after him. I love this scene, a number of decrepit, revolting old ladies stumbling after a retreating Izanagi “oooooo you’re a lovely young man”.
There are a couple of different accounts of how Izanagi out-fled not only the hags, but an angry Izamani and an army led by the thunder god. Some sources say that he escaped the underworld, threw 3 peaches at the pursuers and then pushed a rock in front of the entrance to Yomi. Others say he took a piss and created a river that could not be passed. Both sensible.
Izanagi later washed to purify himself and created more gods in the process. This is supposedly why people wash before entering Shinto shrines and is also the reason for other purification rituals at important events, like sumo wrestling competitions.
The origins of this creation story are, as in all cultures, from an oral tradition. They are first recorded in the Nihon Shoki and Kojiki; Japan’s oldest books from the middle of the 8th century.
An aside to finish, I learnt in my research that phallocentric is an actual word! I thought I made this word up during a classics lesson at Sixth Form when I was being a smart arse analysing some Greek plays and winding up some of the thick kids.