‘The Most Delicate Rootes’: Sweet Potatoes and the Consumption of the New World, 1560-1650
Published: 7 June 2021 - Serin Quinn
...but that this pre-eminence it hath, that it is, according to the common proverb, Farre fetcht and deare bought, and therefore good for Ladies.
James Hart, Klinike, or The Diet of the Diseased (1633), p. 45.
In reading physician James Hart’s reflections on the expensive and ‘out-landish’ food that was growing in popularity in seventeenth-century England, we may not expect the potato to be the subject of his musings. We may be even more surprised to discover that when Hart wrote of the root ‘called commonly Potato, and by some Batato’, that it was not the white potato, Solanum tuberosum, he was describing, but rather the sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas. The word ‘potato’ derives from the Taíno word batata, meaning sweet potato, and it was this South American root vegetable that first arrived in England via Spain, although its Andean cousin the S. tuberosum was soon to follow.
The popularity of sweet potatoes as a ‘fad food’ over the last twenty or so years might seem at odds with the idea that in the sixteenth century this tuber was already well-known in Britain and Europe. Just as modern restaurants sometimes offer the sweet potato as an exotic replacement to the seemingly traditional white potato, people in early modern England used the sweet potato as a substitute for the sweet roots of the day, eryngoes and skirrets (fig. 1). Nevertheless, as with the once ubiquitous medlar fruit, the consumption of the sweet potato has virtually disappeared from the English culinary history and tradition.
Figure 1. Alphonse Millot, ‘Légumes et Plantes Potageres’ in Nouveau Larousse Illustré (Paris: Éditions Larousse, c. 1897–1904). For comparison, the skirret is number 11 on the left and looks much like the eryngo root (not pictured). The sweet potato is on the right, number 7. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Its disappearance is in many ways unsurprising. As mentioned, although the word ‘potato’ should be read as the sweet variety for sixteenth- and seventeenth-century documents, the later popularity of the white variety has muddied the water considerably. A recent historical potato pie ‘bake off’, for example, had most historians creating peculiar-tasting sugared white potato pies on the basis of this misunderstanding. More problematically, until recently the assumption that New World foods were initially rejected by conservative Europe on the basis of their strange novelty and foreign origins was widespread in both academic scholarship and popular history. Looking into the history of the sweet potato provides a far different story: one of luxury and desire rather than fear and suspicion.
Luxuries they certainly were. As with the Asian luxury goods of the long eighteenth century, the reason for their popularity was two-fold: their exclusivity in price and availability, and their exotic origins. As sweet potatoes were unable to flourish as a crop in England’s cooler climate, they were purchased via Spain, which added to both their rarity and expense. Hart was right stating that they were ‘deare bought’: a record from Queen Anne’s household expenses for the year 1613 shows that 1,200 pounds (approx. 544kg) of sweet potatoes were purchased for both ‘ordinary diets’ as well as ‘feasts and entertainments’ for the overall cost of £60. At 12d/lb, sweet potatoes were far beyond the reach of all but the wealthy.
Descriptions of their preparation from recipe books and herbals also gives us an indication of their high status in English foodways. Potato pies, tarts, or puddings – all fairly similar – were the most frequent recipes using sweet potatoes. They would have been sumptuous dishes containing other expensive and foreign ingredients such as nutmeg, ginger, sugar, quinces, figs, and dates, as well as local foods like artichokes or skirrets. Candied potatoes, a sweet treat made with sugar by confectioners, were also popular; so were potatoes roasted in embers and soaked in wine. Writers such as William Harrison noted the preference for such sweet foods at the tables of the wealthy, and potato pie is listed as one of the 50 dishes in John Murrell’s ‘Bill of service for an extraordinary Feast for Summer season’, along with other conspicuously rich foods such as swan and venison.
Figure 2. Arnoldus Montanus, ‘Five large cacti and a sweet potato plant (Ipomoea batatas) in a tropical landscape’, c.1671, etching with engraving, 12.7 x 16.5 cm, Amsterdam. The sweet potato is bottom left, labelled ‘batata’. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.
Underpinning their high cost and scarcity was their ‘farre fetched’ nature, in Hart’s phrase. When this root was introduced to England in 1580, the New World was still a relatively unknown space to most, understood primarily through the oral and written accounts of travellers. Our earliest English description of the sweet potato, from John Hawkins’ journey to Venezuela in 1564, proclaimed how ‘[t]hese Potatoes be the most delicate rootes that may be eaten, and doe farre exceed our passeneps [parsnips] or carets’. Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations (1599), the travel collection in which this account is published, is full of references to sweet potatoes along with tobacco, pineapples, coconuts, and banana—exotic foods that are depicted as growing in abundance in this new paradise on earth. These foods are said to be happily given up by the native inhabitants to the English, usually in exchange for some small trinket. In these passages, the expensive and fashionable sweet potato, as well as the equally prized tobacco, were the enviable trade-goods that promised riches to the English, still reluctant to invest in the colonial enterprise. As Hakluyt wrote in relation to the possibilities gained by English settlement: ‘if the soyle shall yeeld Figges, Almonds, Sugar Canes, Quinces, Orenges, Lemonds, Potatos, &c. there may arise some trade and traffique by Figs, Almonds, Sugar, Marmelade, Sucket, &c’.
By including the sweet potato in discussions of luxury trade and global goods, we gain a better understanding of the English relationship with the New World prior to the establishment of the North American colonies, as well as a more vibrant picture of early modern English foodways and their global nature. The forgotten luxury of the batata gives the lie to the supposed culinary conservatism of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, and, along with trade in other exotic objects such as coconuts and tobacco, set the tone for the English consumerism of the eighteenth century, with its insatiable demand for tea, coffee, chocolate, and other foreign foodstuffs.
Figure 3. ‘Sisarum Peruviarum, sine Batata Hispanorum. Potatus or Potatoes’, in The Herball or, Generall Historie of Plantes, John Gerard (London: John Norton, 1597), p. 780. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.
Serin Quinn is a first-year PhD student at the University of Warwick. She joined the university in 2019 for the MA in Early Modern History, before which she completed a BA in History and Italian at the University of Manchester. Her doctoral project, entitled ‘Love and Gold: A Comparative History of the Tomato in England and Italy, 1500-1800’, studies the reception and assimilation of New World foods in Europe. She is supervised by Professors Rebecca Earle and Beat Kümin and kindly funded by Midlands4Cities.
 See Rebecca Earle, Feeding the People: The Politics of the Potato (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), pp. 24-27. See also see host Sandi Toksvig on popular BBC show QI explaining how the potato was ‘petrifying’ in the 1600s, much to the amusement of the audience. QI, How Do you Make A Potato Petrifying?, YouTube, 4 December 2019, <https://youtu.be/etktVI90nTw?t=101>.
 Brit Mus. Harl. MS 157, Fol. 33r. Gregory Clark estimates the average labourer’s daily wage to be 8d in the decade 1610-9: ‘The Long March of History: Farm Wages, Population, and Economic Growth, England 1209-1869’, The Economic History Review, 60 (2007), pp. 97-135, on 100.
 William Harrison, Description of Elizabethan England, ed. Frederick Furnivall (London: New Shakspere Society, 1876), p. 92. John Murrell, Murrels Two Books of Cookerie and Carving (London: M. Flesher, 1617), p. 3.
 John Sparke, ‘The Voyage Made by the Worshipful M. Iohn Haukins’, in The Principal Navigations, Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation, ed. Richard Hakluyt (London: George Bishop and Ralph Newberie, 1589), pp. 523-543, on 530.
 Richard Hakluyt, ‘Notes framed by M. Richard Hakluyt of the Middle Temple Esquire, Given to Certaine Gentlemen that Went with M. Frobisher in his North west Discoverie, for their Directions’, in The Principal Navigations, pp. 45-47, on 46.