Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was a French pharmacist famous for popularizing potatoes in France. Previously, potatoes were seen only as a food for animals. The description “Parmentier” in today’s language means that a dish is made with potatoes, particularly mashed potatoes.
Potatoes, native to the Andes in South America, were brought in Europe in the 17th century. At first, they served as hog feed. but in the next century, Irish peasants started using them in their cuisine. At the same time in France, potatoes were still considered to be animal feed. People believed that potatoes were indigestible or even poisonous and that they caused leprosy and hemorrhoids.
Parmentier was a pharmacist in the military of Louis XV. He was captured during the Seven Years War against Prussia. As a prisoner of war, he was only fed potatoes. He didn’t get any of the diseases mentioned above and he even liked the flavor.
When the war was over Parmentier came back to France and completed his pharmacy training. After that, he lobbied the Faculty of Medicine in Paris to change its stance on potatoes since he knew that they were not dangerous or toxic in any way.
He also studied nutritional chemistry, which allowed him to examine potatoes and make a chemical analysis. He won a golden medal for his paper on the chemical composition of potatoes. He published several more papers on the nutritional value of potatoes, such as “Inquiry into Nourishing Vegetables That In Times Of Necessity Could Be Substituted For Ordinary Food”
Parmentier spent hours and hours promoting the potatoes. With the permission of Louis XVI and queen Marie Antoinette, he organized lavish dinners in which potatoes appeared in every course. He invited the best scientists of the time, such as Laurent Lavoisier and Benjamin Franklin, to dinners and they were served potatoes. This was a way to introduce the food to Paris’s high society.
Later, he turned his attention to the poorer classes. He had an excellent idea on how to popularize potatoes among the working class. The king gave him two acres of land to grow the crop for human consumption. He placed armed guards on his fields and instructed guards to accept bribes and let people to “steal” potatoes. He would leave his fields unguarded at night so that the locals could creep in and steal the crop.
Thanks to him potatoes helped France during the famine in the winter of 1788-1789. It was also promoted as “revolutionary food” by the Paris Commune during the French Revolution.
Parmentier died on 13 December 1813, at the age of 76. The famous and delicious “Hachis Parmentier” is named after him.