More Excerpts from My Writing: The Great Potato Famine

Today, your average $4 3 pound bag of potatoes will contain 11 potatoes, making a potato about 35 cents.  If you can find a microwave in a corner convenience store, you can get both warmth and sustenance on the street for a quarter and a dime.   Of course, you have to buy the whole bag to get that price, but potatoes will stay good for months in the trunk of a car.  Being able to cook them depends on the cooperativeness of the store clerk – you can’t be exploding potatoes in the microwave.  But, I’ve only once ever been turned down, by an Ethiopian store clerk.  I tried to eat the potato raw.  Several people apparently enjoy these tubers raw, in spite of the poisonous solanine which is otherwise destroyed by heat[i].  I couldn’t keep it down and vomited, my stomach unable to break down the cellulose walls that would allow the amylases in saliva and the pancreas to digest the starch. Even when heat breaks these cellulose bonds, a dog will often throw up the small potato chunks, apparently because it chews its food less than humans and therefore exposes it to fewer amylase enzymes before the potato hits the stomach.  You have to mash potatoes up for dogs.  But potatoes are filling, and they are a lot more nutritious than their rice or pasta counterparts.  They have vitamins, and they are kosher for Passover, so if you have to make Kosher for Passover dog food, potatoes are the way to go.

Carbohydrate chemistry

The chemical structure that needs to be broken down by amylase.  Amylase allows a water to attack at the 1,4 linkage.

 Although starch and cellulose are both glucose polymers, only starch stored in the granules of potatoes can be broken down by the highly specific amylases.  Cellulose in the cell wall cannot be digested[iii].

The action of amylase

                                      The structure of human pancreatic alpha amylase.

A stereo ribbon backbone tracing with secondary structure elements depicted of human pancreatic alpha amylase[iv].  Amylase (called Zymase at the time) was the first enzyme identified in 1815 by Kirchoff through its conversion of starch into sugar in yeast (fermentation of alcohol)[v].

I arrived at the An Gorta Mor memorial to the Great Irish famine in Kingston.  Although the most I have ever been without eating is 3 days, I could definitely regret their loss of the potato and at least imagine a small fraction of their hunger.

Community gardens are a nice green idea in the inner cities.  I have also learned to find the berries, the public fruit and nut trees in small rural towns.  Food pantries never offer anything that is fresh food – it is all cans and peanut butter jars.  By the time spring comes around people that rely on the food pantries are craving the smallest vegetable.  Planting fruit and nut trees at strategic locations in the community is another small way towns can provide for the hungry.  You never really need more than one or two pieces of fruit fallen on the ground, and a handful of nuts on your way to school or church to cut hunger.  Old railroad tracks are good place to plant or look, since they provide shortcuts to the community that walks.  Places near or inside schools or libraries are another good idea if you are a city planner.

The Great Irish famine or the potato blight of 1845-51 was caused by an oomycete or water mold – Phytophthora infestans[vi], Why the Irish stuck it out in their towns and lost an estimated ¼ of the population of Ireland with the potato blight, I don’t know.  Many of them did migrate to the United States during those years on famine boats as they were evicted by their landlords.  Cows eat grass, and milk from the cows would have been enough to get all three major food groups (protein, sugar, and fat), water, and calcium.  Ireland is an island.  They would have had ample fish.  It’s thought that a lot of people died from scurvy or vitamin C deficiency since potatoes contain vitamin C. Largely, though, the starvation was the result of social oppression – possibly also in a unique way a kind of hunger strike, a raising of awareness for the oppression the Irish experienced.  I say this because the Irish, although arriving in droves on famine boats to other countries, were largely silent.  It was the British who collected alms on their behalf, and continued to collect from the Irish, and export from Ireland the food the Irish required to survive, for profit[vii].

The Irish were largely employed in tenant farming.  The terms were simple:  tenants were allowed to live on the land, but every improvement that they made belonged to the landlord.  Rent was extracted in the form of farm produce, and they were given 1-5 acres of land to build a house and raise food for their families on it.  The only way they knew to make it through the winter was by farming the potato (introduced from America in 15xx).  Any farmland that was used by the landlord for cattle (a thriving industry) actually displaced tenants who were not needed for the cattle[viii].  There are reports that some of those caught fishing were killed and their boats confiscated[ix], but also Woodham-Smith discusses a cultural reluctance to eat fish[x].  The landowners were absent, living in England under much better conditions.  Rent was collected by landlords, and a tenant could be evicted at any time for any reason.  When the potato crop failed from the blight, the Irish were too proud and bitter to ask for charity from the British.  The charity that trickled in from those who asked for the Irish (India, Pope Pius IX, England) came to the British, and they were instructed through their landlords to dispense the charity.  Instead, workhouses were created with government civil work such as road destruction and rebuilding as a source of paid labor.  Hundreds of thousands of people died in these workhouses.  Food was removed by the British at gunpoint from Ireland, and exported for profit[xi].  Ireland remained a net exporter of food through most of the five-year famine.  The corresponding memorial built in Ennistymon, Ireland across from a mass grave and abandoned workhouse depicts the following account[xii]:

Gentlemen,

There is a little boy named Michael Rice of Lahinch aged about 4 years. He is an orphan, his father having died last year and his mother has expired on last Wednesday night, who is now about being buried without a coffin!! Unless ye make some provision for such. The child in question is now at the Workhouse Gate expecting to be admitted, if not it will starve.

Robs.S. Constable

The indifference of the world to the suffering and starvation of others persists today.  We have the Bengal holocaust as late as 1945 when 6-7 million Indians died[xiii].  I know that living in the United States, with a certain amount of mobility, I will never starve.  There is enough leftover food here for the homeless to eat well – sometimes it is food kindly left on plates at the malls, sometimes you have to scavenge, but starvation from hunger largely does not occur anymore in this country (at least among mobile adults).  We are connected enough.

Global hidden hunger map as of Feb, 2012[xiv].


[viii]Woodham-Smith C.  The Great Hunger, Ireland 1845-1849.

[xii]C:\Documents and Settings\c\My Documents\8-20\Irish Famine Memorial.htm


 [livedog1]Relate this.

 [livedog2]workhouses

 [livedog3]World bank role

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