King Potato and Potato King – German History Unearthed
Enlarge image Frederick the Great and the Potato Harvest (© picture alliance / Eventpress Herrmann) In many people’s opinion, in Germany, the potato is king. They are prepared boiled, fried, baked, pancaked, dumplinged, noodled – and that is only in the realm of food. They have been the focus of books or hung on Christmas trees, and throughout this year, they are ubiquitous in the Brandenburg capital of Potsdam, where Frederick the Great’s 300th anniversary is being celebrated among the parks and palaces he called home. King Frederick II is also known as the Potato King.
Not all the exhibits in “King & Potato – Frederick the Great and the Prussian ‘Tartuffoli’” (“König & Kartoffel – Friedrich der Große und die preußische ‘Tartuffoli’” starting July 20) will be immediately understood by a casual visitor without prior knowledge of the relationship between the Hohenzollern patriarch and the spud from South America.
Contrary to popular belief, Frederick II (1712 – 1786) did not bring the potato to Prussia, explained the director of the House of Brandenburg-Prussian History (HBPG), Kurt Winkler. Frederick can mainly be credited with its proliferation. However, for Winkler, the myth is a great opportunity to illuminate a piece of Prussian history from an unusual perspective. That’s why it can be found in the many exhibitions and events held throughout Berlin and Brandenburg for birthday celebration of “old Fritz.”
For just one example of how strong the connection is between the Prussian monarch and the vegetable in question, all one needs to do is to head to his final resting place at Sanssouci Palace. There, lying atop his gravestone, people have left symbols of reverence, such as flowers, but also, potatoes.
Enlarge image Sanssouci Palace (© picture-alliance / akg-images) “In the beloved Frederick legend the potato plays a huge role,” said Winkler. He went on to explain the so-called potato orders of the king, where he instructed people to cultivate the vegetable and also gave them a farming manual. “What was particularly impressive was how, in 19th century accounts, the king had taken on a mythical status as “breadwinner,” said Winkler. He also noted that potatoes had been used as a supplement to grain crops to stave off famine.
It was particularly small farms that cultivated the potato, since it was a practical crop for their own gardens, added Winkler. Furthermore, such crops were used to feed soldiers and became a symbol of the social structure, he said.
For the special king and potato exhibition, the HBPG uses the legend of the royal breadwinner as a starting point. “We felt that this part of the history was well researched,” remarked curator Antonia Humm, “though much has been written without proper citation of sources.” Historians conducting research in the Brandenburg Main State Archive and the Secret State Archives, Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation have found documents that do not necessarily corroborate the myth.
“For example, there is the story that the king had ordered the fields to be guarded by soldiers so that the people would become curious and steal the potatoes,” said Humm. What was then discovered was that this depiction dated from an earlier period than the mid-18th century and most likely originated from France.
“Much of the information that we have comes from the writings of pastors,” said curator Marina Heilmeyer. The clerics were sent forth as so-called “spud preachers” on orders of the king. The exhibition therefore allows visits to inspect a historic pulpit from Frederick’s era.
“If you move away from the legend, the real impact becomes clear,” said Winkler. A seemingly banal topic, potatoes, actually shows how the Prussian king developed “a modern state though his lifelong work,” he said. Probably most poignant: Frederick himself never ate potatoes. They did finally make it on the menu for his successor, though were really only found on the dining tables of the servants.