Had Jane Austen Heard of Thomas Seddal?

Had Jane Austen Heard of Thomas Seddal?

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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20 COMMENTS
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Gianna Thomas
AuAu
August 27, 2020 12:35 AM

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. 🙂

sheilalmajczan
sheilalmajczan
August 16, 2020 10:20 PM

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.

darcybennett
darcybennett
August 13, 2020 3:19 PM

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.

carylkane
carylkane
August 12, 2020 6:51 PM

WOWZERS! That’s a lot of carbs! Thank you for sharing this interesting tidbit.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
August 12, 2020 8:59 AM

Interesting post! Wow what a big potato! Love the one that looks like a heart!

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
August 11, 2020 11:58 AM

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.

Sharon Lathan
Admin
August 11, 2020 11:38 AM

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.

Sheila Clark
Sheila Clark
August 11, 2020 10:54 AM

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?

Regina Jeffers
Admin
August 11, 2020 7:46 AM

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.

Gianna Thomas
AuAu
August 27, 2020 12:33 AM
Reply to  Cinnamon Worth

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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