Thanksgiving is a time of many confused stories about the food we consume. For years, people blamed the tryptophan in turkey meat for their feelings of drowsiness after a big Thanksgiving meal, but as it turns out, there just isn’t enough tryptophan there to make a difference and besides, tryptophan doesn’t really boost melatonin, a hormone associated with sleep. The culprit is probably a combination of holiday stress, and a gigantic meal featuring carbohydrates and starches.
The most popular starch found on the American Thanksgiving table is the humble potato. Sorry, did I say “humble”? I meant “ridiculously amazing.” The potato is often associated with Ireland and parts of Eastern Europe, but its beginnings lie in Peru and the Inca empire. The conquistadors brought the tuber to Europe, and from there, the potato spread throughout the world.
Here’s the thing about potatoes, though: they are one of those plants that one would not expect to be domesticated. The potato is in Solanaceae, the nightshade family, and that family has a lot of chemicals, like solanine and glycoalkaloids. These chemicals are found in the plant’s tissue and they serve as a defense against insects and diseases.
From the plant’s perspective, these chemicals are great, but from the human perspective, these chemicals can cause some problems. Fortunately, the potatoes you buy at the store have been screened for solanine, and the signs of increased solanine concentration are easy to spot. Eating the shoots of potato plants or green potatoes can cause sickness, or even death in extreme cases. Have you heard, “leaves of three, let it be” in reference to poison ivy? Well just remember, “if a green tuber you spot, throw that sucker out!”
So if you celebrate Thanksgiving or the next time you sit down to a potato-laden meal, think upon the ingenuity and drive that pushed humans into domesticating the potato, and give thanks for the one tenacious, intrepid explorer who saw a poisonous plant and decided that there must be something there they could eat anyway.