A potato problem from history

Lakshmi Mitter

History can provide interesting problems that can serve as practice platforms for students to engage in open discussion and in the process develop the problem solving skill – an essential skill required across professions. Many problems from history are easy to resolve today given the substantial technological progress. But the same problem that seems so ordinary today may have been a crisis in history. What makes it even more interesting are the restrictions that the time period imposed.

Active learning and problem solving through group discussions
Different perspectives of the same subject or problem arise when different people make different connections with their own experiences, something that they had read about somewhere or heard about. This process always leads to invigorating discussions leading to very interesting discoveries. One such session at the Young Executives’ Club (comprising 11-14 year olds) led to a very important realization among the children.

The problem

The time when potatoes were not known as food: The Prussian king, Fredrick the Great had a pressing problem to solve. Bread used to be the staple diet for his people, but, the price of bread was going up steadily. There was little he could do on the supply side and hence decided to look for alternatives and discovered that the potato could be a good substitute. But there was a problem. His people had never eaten potatoes. Worse, they considered it to be poisonous as it looked dirty. The potato found its way to Europe only in the middle of the 16th century and it took a while to reach the north.

One would imagine that being a king, he had dictatorial powers over the people and they would have to follow his decree in spite of their personal beliefs. However, the farmers refused to follow the king’s decree to cultivate potatoes and people declined to eat them too. The king did the most obvious thing one could possibly do – he lectured them about the health benefits of potatoes and how cultivation of potatoes was economical. Even better, they could be stored easily for long periods of time. However, the people did not budge.

The king needed to somehow convince people to try potatoes before the prices of bread went out of control. What could he have done to convince the people? The enthusiastic tweens and teens jumped into action looking at the problem from different perspectives.

The different perspectives and solutions that emerged
It was agreed that if the king could prove that the potato was safe, the problem could be solved. Having set the main goal, discussions began in the group. One of the top solutions that came up was to “disguise” the potato in interesting/popular dishes combining spices and flavours. This led to the question “how?” In the 18th century, doing this was next to impossible as the concept of “dining out” did not exist. “Why not organize events with food that has potato and thus prove to the people that nothing untoward happened?” A couple of hands went up in the group. “That is a risky proposition. What if they find that the potato has a texture and taste that was different from anything they knew so far?” “What if it is hard?” “Hmm, so that means the king’s staff needs to make sure it is cooked properly. By the way, the chefs need to learn to cook potatoes.”

One thought led to another and in the process we had a macro view of the problem. Even better, we were able to anticipate problems with our proposed approaches. For instance, someone in the group suggested, “They could use other alternatives that have similar nutritional benefits such as cauliflower and squash.” “But these vegetables may be harder to grow and storage will be an issue. They don’t last long and without the concept of refrigeration that we are used to today, these vegetables are likely to spoil very quickly,” pointed out another.

Similarly, ideas such as creating new recipes, allowing the aroma of well-cooked food to do its magic, have celebrities eat the potato in front of the people, events that allow people to create their own recipes, etc., came up. “My brother tends to eat the food that he makes on his own. So, why not try the same with the people?” suggested one of the teens. This idea in particular led to the question – “But how do we even make potatoes available when farmers are refusing to grow them?” “That’s easy. The king could import potatoes for a short while and set these events in motion,” suggested another. The group agreed that this would be a fine idea but it would have to be a super secret operation. Anything super secret makes a story interesting. Of course, it needs tons of planning and trust.

The climax to the discussion
After 45 minutes of intense discussion the white board was full and there was pensive silence at our Zoom meeting. “How about using reverse psychology? If people are told not to eat potatoes, they will want to eat them,” suggested one of the teens. Another responded, “True, but perhaps a simpler idea would be for the king to eat it himself in front of a crowd and prove that potatoes are safe.” This idea seemed to win the favour of many in the group and the consensus was that this is the best idea.

Discovering the nature of living in the 18th century vs now
This discussion led to more than one realization – the most important of which was the fact that we are better off now than before. Things that we take for granted today were matters of great importance in history. Today the potato is just another common vegetable known for its versatility. To think of a time when people were hesitant to eat potatoes, when refrigeration did not exist and it was solely the king’s responsibility to make sure that his people did not starve were all very intriguing for this generation of tweens and teens.

The author is the founder of Talking Circles – an online cohort based learning program. She can be reached at lakshmi@talkingcircles.in.

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