Eating acquired a new political importance during the Enlightenment, as writers began to link individual diets to the strength and wealth of nations. This article examines the eighteenth-century career of a foodstuff that became emblematic of these developments: the potato. Politicians, statesmen, and philosophers across Europe enthusiastically promoted the potato as a means of strengthening the body politic. They framed this promotion within a language of choice and the individual pursuit of happiness. In so doing they laid the foundations for today's debates about how to balance personal dietary autonomy with the demands of public health. The roots of the current neoliberal insistence that healthy eating is fundamentally a matter of individual choice thus lie in the Enlightenment.
Potatoes and the Pursuit of Happiness
Rebecca Earle teaches history at the University of Warwick. Her research has investigated aspects of Spanish American cultural and political history, and particularly the nature of identity, memory, and embodiment. Lately she has developed a particular interest in the cultural significance of food and eating. Her most recent monograph, The Body of the Conquistador (Cambridge University Press, 2012), which won the 2013 Bolton-Johnson Prize, explored the centrality of food to the construction of colonial space, and the “racial” categories that underpinned it. She is currently writing a history of the potato, focusing on the emergence of the potato as an Enlightenment superfood to explore the connections between everyday life and new ideas of individualism, political economy, and the state.
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Rebecca Earle; Potatoes and the Pursuit of Happiness. Gastronomica 1 February 2019; 19 (1): 14–32. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/gfc.2019.19.1.14
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