Much of what we think we know about the potato – that it’s just a high-caloric starch without nutritive value, and that Ireland gave the world potatoes – is simply not true. The humble spud is full of nutrition; one medium-sized potato with the skin on has more potassium than a banana and 45 percent of the daily value for vitamin C. It has a significant amount of vitamin B6 and iron, along with a couple of grams of fiber. And that’s without any fat, sodium or cholesterol for just 110 calories. And that Irish thing? Well, turns out the potato was first domesticated in Peru.
The potato is still so important to the Peruvian diet – and therefore its economy, environment, history and culture – that Dr. Linda Greenow, professor emerita of Geography and Latin American Studies at SUNY-New Paltz, has made it the focal point of her upcoming lecture, “The Potato and the Personal in Peru.” She’ll speak in the Coykendall Science Building auditorium at SUNY-New Paltz on Thursday, September 17 at 5 p.m. The lecture is free of charge to attend and open to the public. It will be followed by a reception with light refreshments in the lobby.
Greenow began teaching at SUNY-New Paltz in 1985. She eventually served as Geography Department chair and has written extensively about the historical geography of Mexico and Peru. Retired since 2013, Greenow currently volunteers as a tutor for several local adult literacy programs.
“The Potato and the Personal in Peru” will draw on her experience as a geographer. People in that field deal with questions involving the relationship between people and the environment, and that covers a huge range of topics, she says. “But one topic that’s interesting to almost everybody is food. When geographers get together at a conference, we’ll go out to some interesting restaurant with ethnic food and enjoy eating it, but we’re also discussing, ‘Where do these ingredients come from?’ and ‘How did that country get those ingredients?’ and ‘What kind of international trade do you think is going on here?’”
Potato cultivation in the Andes provides a fascinating microcosm of Peruvian and Andean civilization, Greenow says, and the potato is the focus of small farmer trade and marketplace interaction. She says that when she lived in Peru for two years some time ago, buying her groceries at the local market – similar to a farmers’ market here – it was an interesting experience with an entire social network. “When you get to know people, you build relationships, you find out what’s going on – and in that way you find out about the culture.”
Most of the potatoes produced in the Andes are grown by small farmers producing for themselves. “They produce some extras that they sell or trade locally at these markets, but they don’t go into an international import/export system. There is some commercial agriculture on the coast where it’s warmer, but not very much.”
Greenow says that people in the US look at potatoes very differently from people in Peru. “Potatoes got a bad rap and a bad rep in the United States,” she says. “Potatoes are not used to their best advantage in terms of nutrition in this country. When I was teaching and I would start talking about the potato as an important part of the diet in South America, my students would say, ‘No, that can’t be right. Potatoes are bad for you.’ I would tell them, ‘In countries where people are doing very hard physical labor, they need carbohydrates.’”
And while potatoes are the main food for the household in the Peruvian countryside, says Greenow, their preparation methods differ from ours: no deep-frying or smothering the potato with butter and sour cream going on there. “They do a lot of boiling, and then use sauces with different combinations of chili peppers and herbs. Or when they’re out working in the potato fields, they’ll build a quick temporary oven and bake the potatoes on a fire. They also do a process that’s like freeze-drying, but it’s done at home. Fresh potatoes have a lot of water in them – when we harvest them, they’re still a living organism; that’s why they grow sprouts – but freeze-dried potatoes will last for many months.”
Greenow’s lecture will be the ninth annual installment of the Dennis O’Keefe Memorial Lecture at the college. The yearly event honors the memory of Dennis O’Keefe, remembered fondly by many in the New Paltz community. He was a volunteer fireman in the village who graduated from the college in 1973 and was a longtime staff member of the Sojourner Truth Library on campus. (The Friends of the Sojourner Truth Library sponsor the lectures.)
“Dennis was a wonderful man,” says Greenow. “He was so interested in so many things. He usually worked at the circulation desk, right by the front door, and when you walked in there, if he knew you, he’d say, ‘Hey, did you see this? Did you see that?’ He knew a lot about local history and had a huge postcard collection from the area. Dennis was just very friendly and willing to share his knowledge with other people.
“When he passed away, everyone felt really bad, so somebody came up with the idea to start this annual lecture. A lot of people on campus now never knew him, but we try to get speakers who can talk about something that might have fallen in Dennis’s area of interest. But that was pretty much everything! There are probably a few things we can think of that he wouldn’t have been interested in, but I don’t know what they would be.”
“The Potato and the Personal in Peru” lecture, Thursday, September 17, 5 p.m., free, Coykendall Science Building auditorium, SUNY-New Paltz, 1 Hawk Drive, New Paltz; https://www.newpaltz.edu.
You can also check out Dennis O’Keefe’s personal postcard collection on the SUNY-New Paltz website, here: https://library.newpaltz.edu/banner/archives/postcards.html. This treasure trove consists of scans of more than 400 postcards which chronicle the history and development of New Paltz.