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Word of the Day: aardappel (potato)

When he was working on his first major painting, ‘De aardappeleters’ (The Potato Eaters), Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) wrote to his brother Theo in his letter of Thursday, 9 April 1885:


‘Ik [ben] bezig opnieuw aan die boeren om een schotel aardappels. Ik kom er daarnet van thuis – en heb bij het lamplicht nog gewerkt eraan – ofschoon ik het bij dag ditmaal heb aangezet. Ziehier hoe de compositie nu geworden is. Ik heb het op een vrij groot doek geschilderd en zoals de schets nu is, zit, geloof ik, er wel leven in.’ ([…] I’m working again on those peasants around a dish of potatoes. I’ve just come home from there — and have worked on it further by lamplight — although this time I started it in daylight. See, this is what the composition has now become. I’ve painted it on a fairly large canvas, and as the sketch is now, I believe there’s life in it. 

Look at the date: 1885! Only five years later this misunderstood genius (aged 37) would die from a gunshot wound which was probably self-inflicted. Within this short period he painted work with worldwide fame. And then compare this gloomy Dutch masterpiece to his exuberant French paintings from 1888: the irises, the sunflowers, the lilacs, the roses and the wheat fields… incredible, but true.

Look at the way Vincent van Gogh portrayed the grotesque Brabant farmers in 1885: their thick lips, protruding mouths, cheekbones and their large eyes wide open. No, he was not making fun of these potato eating famers and their potato-coloured skins. Van Gogh admired their simple way of life so much that he had to paint it. Such was rural life in the heart of Brabant, in the poor farms of the Netherlands, of Europe.

Poor farmers consumed a lot of potatoes in those days. The starchy tuber dominated their daily menu. Their work on the land was so exhausting that men had to eat up to 60, their women 40 and children 25 potatoes per day. But, I hear you say, how could they afford the luxury of coffee or tea, as can be seen in Van Gogh’s painting? Right, but wrong… What the lumpish woman is pouring, isn’t coffee or tea but a brew made from cheap chicory (yes from a plant related to the vegetable LOF of Tuesday’s posting).

In the nineteenth century many Europeans had become completely dependent on the potato. And when in 1845 the blight, the catastrophic potato disease raised hell over Europe, millions of people died. Holland and other many European countries were hit but not as hard as Ireland which was sledgehammered. The blight not only killed one million Irishmen, it also caused a massive emigration to Britain, the U.S., Canada and elsewhere.

As a result Dutch gardeners tried to grow potatoes that were immune to potato diseases. Kornelis Lieuwes de Vries (1854-1929) was a teacher in the Frisian village Suameer who cultivated 125 new potato varieties in his spare time. Of all those varieties one high yielding potato was so successful that it is still widely grown in Europe and North Africa. In 1905 he named it Bintje after the 17-year old Frisian beauty Bintje Jansma, one of the pupils at his school. Bintje is ‘een veelzijdige knol’ (a versatile tuber) used for boiling, baking, French fries and potato chips.

Today we still eat a lot of potatoes. Ever since the plant was cultivated in the region of Peru and Bolivia some 8000 years ago, and since it was introduced to Europe by the Spanish in the second half of the 16th century, it has spread around the world. The English word potato comes from Spanish patata. The Spanish borrowed the word from the Taíno Indians who called a sweet potato ‘batata’ and the Quechuan ‘papa’ (potato). The 19th century New Zealand word ‘spud’ is probably related to Dutch ‘spade’ (shovel) or Danish ‘spyd’ (spear). The pointed shovel was used for digging holes before the planting of potatoes.

The German word ‘Kartoffel’ thanks its existence to Italian ‘tartufolo’ (truffle), because potatoes are the look-alikes of truffles. The Dutch share the name AARDAPPEL with French ‘pomme de terre’ (apple from earth). Funny that Old-English and early Dutch also knew the ‘eorðæppel’ even though no potato had been spotted on European soil before 1565. So before 1565 the word AARDAPPEL usually referred to a cucumber or a melon.

The word PATAT is also known in the Netherlands but it refers solely now to chopped spuds fried in oil and served usually in a pointed paper bag with mayonnaise, peanut butter sauce or tomato ketchup. The best chips or French fries in the Netherlands can be purchased from Hagenaar Jack Sackman, winner of the Algemeen Dagblad chips competition 2013. His chip shop Jack Snack can be found on Het Kleine Loo 456 in Mariahoeve. A few yards from our institute!

Source picture and letter: