Had Jane Austen Heard of Thomas Seddal? by Cinnamon Worth

Had Jane Austen Heard of Thomas Seddal? by Cinnamon Worth

So much has been written about Jane Austen’s life and work, that finding a unique topic is nearly impossible. As I wondered what I could possibly share with you that you haven’t already read, I thought back to a course I’d taken in college called Chaucer to Donne, which explored literature written in Middle English. (I can hear the flood of questions now—why on earth would anyone voluntarily take such a course? Shockingly, I’ve been told that I sometimes meander with my writing! So, for the moment, let’s set those questions aside.) The interesting thing about the single lecture that I managed to drag myself to was not that people actually wake up before noon, it was that the speaker didn’t address the novels or stories we were required to read, write about, and be tested on. Those works were discussed in small groups. Instead, the lecture explored the events that occurred during the lives of the authors we studied and considered how these things impacted architects, artists, writers, and musicians who lived during that window of time.

Jane Austen lived from 1775 to 1817, in a period of rapid change. The First Industrial Revolution, the birth of the United States, and the French Revolution are just a few of the events she was alive to experience first hand. Surely, if I looked at events occurring during her formative years, I could find some fascinating tidbit you may not have heard about. I searched, and I found one… drum roll, please.

On February 17, 1795, Thomas Seddal harvested a 8.3-kg (that’s 18 pounds) potato from his garden in Chester, England. Potatoes aren’t what you had in mind when you were thinking about influential events, were they. Well, when they were first brought over from the new world, they weren’t all that exciting to the Europeans either.

(Nowadays, we can get them to be six tons!!)*

 

Potatoes made their way to Europe because they have a decent shelf life. Sailors returning from the Americas brought them on board to eat during the journey home. But once introduced to Europe, the potato didn’t take off as a food source for quite some time. Initially, many European countries banned them from being planted in fields, reserving this land for grain. People were suspicious of the plant and thought potatoes might be poisonous. They were nicknamed the devil’s apples

While awaiting their day as a commercial crop, the potato found its way into more and more smaller personal gardens. Some people planted them for their flowers, others in order to feed their livestock. When the peasants discovered that potatoes, which grow underground, were less likely to be eaten by armies marching through the land, potatoes became a popular food for the poor. When the poor moved into the cities to find factory work, they found city living offered even less space for gardens.  Fortunately, many potatoes can grow in a small area, and the potato became a feature in urban landscapes.

By 1750, the French and German governments finally saw the value of growing potatoes in bulk. They began promoting, and even started dictating, the development of potato fields. Then in 1770, a mini Ice Age hit, and famines raged through Europe. Fortunately, potatoes do just fine in the cooler weather and this crop saved the day. In 1774, a French physician published a paper extolling their nutritional value. In 1785, a French gardening publication wrote of the potato, “There is no vegetable about which so much has been written and so much enthusiasm has been shown.” The vegetable even infiltrated fashion. Marie Antoinette once wore a headdress made of potato flowers to a ball.

 

So, you see, the potato was entering its heyday during Jane’s lifetime. It wouldn’t surprise me if reading about Mr. Seddal’s enormous find was the equivalent of seeing one of today’s memes for the first time. It might have taken a little longer before the potato made its debut on Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s menu considering it was still seen as “foodstuff for the poor”, but having firmly won the hearts of the masses, potatoes eventually earned their place on even the finest of tables.

 

*created using things like paint and concrete… (wink emoji)

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21 Responses to Had Jane Austen Heard of Thomas Seddal? by Cinnamon Worth

  1. Welcome to Austen Authors, Cinnamon. I am delighted you have joined us. This is a great group and very supportive. Glad to have you with us along with your sly wit and good writing. 🙂

  2. Yes, Sheila Clark, Collins does comment and ask which daughter is responsible for the exemplary potatoes. We used to grow potatoes in the large garden we had while I was growing up. My father was an organic farmer way back before it became go popular. The part of the potato next to the skin has the most nutrition so don’t peel them before cooking them so you can then just peel off the cooked skin.

    • You know your Austen trivia! I recently read the post about JAFF troupes and this one was on there. That is pretty funny complimenting boiled potatoes. They certainly aren’t the first thing to spring to mind when one imagines a talented cook.

  3. I certainly won’t question your choice of college class as I took a class that was solely on Chaucer as I love the Canterbury Tales. Thanks for sharing this information.

    • Good point… if someone was going to eat that large a potato, how would you prepare it? Part of me would want to make like five different types of potatoes (French fries, hash browns, mashed, baked, chips), but I bet it would be better to prepare most of it to be froze for later. But I love love love carbs, and it would be such a rare opportunity to eat that much and only need to log “one potato” in my food diary.

    • I know…right? I wish they sold a bag of those on Valentine’s Day. It would be fun to serve a heart shaped baked potato. One year, used a cookie cutter to make heart shaped fries.

  4. Welcome to the party, Cinnamon. Hope you have a fabulous time here. We love [as Regina says] quirky historical facts and anything to do with Jane. Blessings, stay safe, and healthy.

  5. Ok first, even before I welcome you to the group, I just gotta say that is ONE HUGE POTATO!! Scanning the blog before reading it, I assumed that was a paper potato, or some sort of prop. Wowza! If something even a third that size grew in my yard I’d be expecting space aliens to pop out of it!

    That out of the way, WELCOME CINNAMON!! We are thrilled to have you as part of our Austen family. It is a delight to welcome new authors with unique writing voices and experiences. This blog topic is fabulous! And I am 99.9% positive no one has ever written about potatoes, especially monster ones. LOL!! Well done.

    • You’re right… that is one huge potato. The six-ton one is just a sculpture. (No fooling you.) It would take 10,000 years to grow a real one that size and it would rot before it could be harvested. The biggest one verified these days was only about 8 pounds. No wonder Thomas’s find made history.

  6. In the Kiera Knightley / Matthew Macfayden version, doesn’t Mr. Collins comment on the excellent potatoes implying one of the daughters had to cook them?

    • Gosh, I’m not sure. I’ll need to rewatch that version. It’s pretty amazing to me that the Mr. Collins character is so creepy that they could have him played by Tom Hollander and still make my skin crawl.

  7. I once took a course in college that was English Lit 900-1642, I did another one on Milton.
    I love quirky historical facts that can be added to stories. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Goodness… you were a dedicated student. That is some heavy reading. I would have switched my class in a heartbeat, but sadly it was pre-internet and I was a foreign exchange student. I couldn’t reach my home school to find a class that would provide me with my necessary credits so I kept all the classes I’d been approved for. Actually, that is also why I stayed in the creative writing course I’d signed up for. It was my first and only writing class. It was worse than the Middle English literature course. The teacher was brutal. In the end, only three students kept his class. I walked away convinced I was the world’s worst writer. Avoided any type of creative writing for decades. So anyone reading this comment, please learn from my experience… don’t stop doing something you enjoy just because someone with knowledge or authority in an area doesn’t think you’re good enough.

      • I agree wholeheartedly. And I’ll add something else: don’t stop doing what you’re good at just because someone doesn’t think you’re good enough. That also includes ourselves. 🙂

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