It was a small round object sent around the planet, and it changed the course of human history. Call it “Spudnik.” It was a potato. On Columbus Day, the country commemorates the grand global changes — discoveries and destruction alike — that unfolded after Christopher Columbus linked the New World and the Old. But some scholars take a more granular view of what Columbus wrought. They look at the very seeds, seedlings and tubers that began crisscrossing the oceans in what they call the “Columbian Exchange.”
The potato alone gets credit for population booms in parts of northern Europe that paved the way for urbanization and, in turn, fueled the Industrial Revolution. “It’s hard to imagine a food having a greater impact than the potato,” says Nancy Qian, an economics professor at Northwestern University.
Before Columbus landed on Hispaniola, the European diet was a bland affair. In many northern climes, crops were largely limited to turnips, wheat, buckwheat and barely. Even so, when potatoes began arriving from America, it took a while for locals to realize that the strange lumps were, comparatively speaking, little nutritional grenades loaded with complex carbohydrates, amino acids and vitamins.