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Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Mystery of Virginia's Hot Potato

17th century Virginia Indian vegetables, no potatoes

In 1621, two years after being selected to be the first speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses, John Pory was invited to a feast as the guest of king Ekeeks chief of the Onancock Indian tribe that lived in what is now Accomack, Virginia. He was fed, among other things, roasted oysters and "batata" (Spanish word for sweet potatoes). John didn't like the sweet potatoes because one burned his mouth as he bit into it without letting it first cool down to a safe temperature.

After that experience Pory reportedly said, "I would not give a farthing for a shipload." While sweet potatoes and potatoes are both "new world" foods, potatoes were first introduced in the colonies from a shipment to Virginia via Bermuda in 1621 rather than through trade with Indians, or so it has been thought. This is because no other Englishman mentions Virginia Indians eating potatoes or sweet potatoes in the early 17th century.

And, while we are discussing potatoes, let's discuss what we know first before we get into what we don't know. First, sweet potatoes are a completely different plant species than white potatoes. Sweet potatoes belong to the Convolvulaceae family which is known by its scientific name of Ipomoea batatas and also includes several varieties of morning glories that you may have growing in your flower garden. White potatoes, like Russets for example, are part of the Solanaceae family of plants belonging to the nightshade group. Yams are also another completely different species as well. Yams are monocots and are related to lilies and grasses and are native to Africa and Asia.

Potatoes and sweet potatoes were originally domesticated in the area of southern Peru and northwestern Bolivia around 7,000–10,000 years ago. Seventeenth century Spaniards would have referred to potatoes as "patata" and sweet potatoes as "batata". In fact, the English word "potato" is derived from "patata." You say patata I say batata, that's what it was all about in the 17th century. The Spanish probably got both first from the natives that lived in South and Central America and took them back to Europe with them in the 16th century.

So, how did sweet potatoes show up in 1621 on the table (figuratively speaking) of a Virginia Indian king and why were the Algonquin speaking Indians of Virginia using a non-Algonquin word? It's the mystery of Virginia's hot potato that needs to be solved!

On a side note, how potatoes arrived in Europe has never really been well understood. For over 200 years the "official" story was that potatoes were brought into Ireland by Sir Walter Raleigh who got them from Virginia. In fact, the Irish used to call them "Virginia potatoes." Again, this is doubtful as potatoes were not grown in Virginia in the 16th century as far as anyone can tell. Some now believe that Sir Frances Drake picked up potatoes while sailing around the coast of South America before picking up colonists from Roanoke Island around 1585 and brought them back to Ireland.

Muddying the waters more is the fact that in 1600, John Pory translated, edited, and published A Geographical Historie of Afirca, written in Arabicke and Italian by John Leo, a More, borne in Granada and brought up in Barbarie. In that work, Pory translated a passage and used the word "batata" saying it was from the West Indies. "They have good sustenance also by meanes of a root, called there Igname, but in the west Indies Batata." While the original author (or even Pory) could have been confusing yams with sweet potatoes just like we do today, the fact remains that the word "batata" was not unknown to Pory in 1621. Yet, he, supposedly, speaks of it in 1621 as though it was the first encounter he had with it. So, the questions around this event include:

1.) Is King Ekeeks' "batata" really sweet potato?

2.) Is John Pory relating a truthful account of the feast or did he embellish it?

3.) If "batata" is sweet potato, why didn't the other Englishmen like Smith, Clayton, Spelman, and Strachey mention them as they actually lived with Virginia Indians in the 17th century?

4.) Did king Ekeeks serve some other root or tuber that is native to Virginia and called it "batata" because he had learned the word from other European explorers and wanted to impress Pory?

5.) Did Pory misunderstand an Algonquin word that sounds like "batata"?

If Pory's account is accurate, and the "batata" he mentioned is in fact sweet potatoes, in all likelihood the Onancock Indians traded for them from the Spanish when they visited Virginia in the late 16th century and, for some reason, they didn't share them with other Indians in Virginia.

That is the story of Virginia's hot potato mystery. For some reason, it makes me hungry for sweet potato casserole.

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