CHAPTER IV ~ THE POTATO AND ITS SUBSTITUTES
Never did it seem truer that “blessings brighten as they take their flight” than when the potato went off the market or soaring prices put it out of reach in the winter of 1917. “How shall I plan my meals without it?” was the housewife’s cry. “How shall I enjoy my meals without it?” said all the millions of potato eaters who immediately forgot that there was still a large number of foods from which they might extract some modicum of enjoyment.
And so the Nutrition Expert was asked to talk about “potato substitutes” and expected to exercise some necromancy whereby that which was not a potato might become a potato. Now, the Nutrition Expert was very imperturbable—not at all disturbed by the calamity which had befallen our tables. That unfeeling person saw potatoes, not in terms of their hot mealiness and spicy mildness, but in terms of that elusive thing called “DIET.” The vanishing tuber was bidden to answer the dietary roll-call:
“This is a good showing for any single food material. The potato, as truly as bread, may be called a ‘staff of life.’ Men have lived in health upon it for many months without any other food save oleomargarine. Its protein, though small in amount, is most efficient in body-building, its salts are varied in kind and liberal in amount, and it furnishes a large amount of very easily digested fuel besides. It is at its best when cooked in the simplest possible way—baked or boiled in its skin. Nevertheless we are not absolutely dependent upon the potato.”
“Alas,” said the housewife, “this doesn’t tell me what to cook for dinner!” “Patience, Madam, we shall see about that.” The fact that starch is present is what makes the potato seem so substantial. But bread, rice, hominy, in fact, all cereal foods can supply starch just as well. Pick out the one you fancy and serve it for your dinner. One good-sized roll or a two-inch cube of corn bread, or three-fourths of a cup of boiled rice will sustain you just as well as a medium-sized potato. A banana, baked or fried, makes an excellent substitute for a potato. An apple is also a very palatable potato equivalent, if you want something more spicy than hominy or corn bread. Why mourn over the lost potato?
But how about those mineral salts? Well, the potato has no monopoly on those, either, though it is ordinarily a very valuable contributor. Milk has already been mentioned as one of the great safeguarding sources of so-called ash constituents. Others are vegetables and fruits of different kinds. These have been a neglected and sometimes a despised part of the diet: “Why spend money for that which is not meat?” is often taken literally. Even food specialists have been known to say, “Fruits and vegetables are mostly water and indigestible fiber; they have little food value.” This is a good deal like saying, “If your coat be long enough you do not need a pair of shoes.” A potato has as much iron as an egg yolk or a medium-sized chop. This is one more reason why we should be sorry to take the useful tuber from our tables, but we may feel a certain independence, even when meat and eggs are prohibitive in price, since by canning or drying, if in no other way, we can have green vegetables as a source of iron the whole year through. Some people are afraid that canned vegetables will prove unwholesome; but if removed from the can as soon as opened and heated to boiling before they are eaten, we are recently assured that the danger of food poisoning will be materially lessened. Even when such vegetables are wanted for salads, boiling and subsequent cooling are advised. The mineral salts of vegetables dissolve into the water in which they stand, and in any shortage of such food, or for the greatest economy, it would seem wise to save the water in the can, which is often thrown away to secure a more delicate flavor. Water from the cooking of fresh vegetables which are not protected by skins (among them spinach, peas, carrots, and asparagus), can often be reduced to a small amount by steaming instead of boiling the vegetable, or any drained off can be used in gravy, soup, sauce, or some similar fashion. The strong flavor of some vegetables, however, makes such economy rather impractical.
Some people discriminate against canned and dried vegetables because they do not taste like fresh ones. This seems rather unreasonable, as we want a variety of flavors in our diet and might welcome the change which comes from this way of treating food as well as that which comes from different methods of cooking. Nobody expects a stew to taste like a roast, and yet both may be good and we would not want either one all the time. Instead of regretting that canned peas do not taste like those fresh from the garden (incomparable ones!) let us be glad that they taste as good as they do. Would we like them any better if they tasted like cornmeal mush?
While a potato has about as much phosphorus as an egg yolk, substitutes for it in this respect are not hard to find. Five tablespoonfuls of milk or half an ounce of cheese will easily supply as much, while half a cup of cooked string beans will provide all the iron as well as half the phosphorus in a potato, and a teaspoon of butter or other fat added to the beans will make them equal in fuel value. On the other hand, two small slices of whole wheat bread would furnish all the phosphorus, half the iron, and an equal amount of fuel.
The potato is conspicuously high in potassium, but it is not likely that in any diet containing one kind of fruit and one kind of vegetable each day there will be any permanent shortage of this substance. Spinach, celery, parsnips, lettuce, cabbage, rutabagas, beets, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, and turnips are all good sources of potassium and some of them are available all the year round without canning and drying.
But what significance has the “Anti-Scorbutic Property”? Does that not make potatoes indispensable? Scurvy, Madam, occurs whenever people live for a long time on a monotonous diet without fresh food. The potato offers good protection against this disease at a low cost, but other foods have long been known to possess the same power, among them oranges, lemons, limes, and other fruits, and cabbage and other green vegetables; in fact, a mixed diet in which fruits and vegetables occur is assurance of freedom from scurvy. Just how far the potato will go in providing the specific vitamines essential for growth is still unsettled. It undoubtedly contains one of them in goodly amount, but for the present it is wise to include some green (leaf) vegetable in the diet even when potatoes are plentiful, especially if butter, milk, and eggs cannot be freely used.
Nutritionally then, we can find substitutes for the potato; practically, too, we can find quite satisfactory alternatives for it in our conventional bills of fare. On the face of things the potato is a bland mealy food which blends well with the high flavor and the firm texture of meat and the softness of many other cooked vegetables. Gastronomically, rice or hominy comes about as near to having the same qualities, with hot bread, macaroni, sweet potatoes, and baked bananas (underripe so as not to be too juicy and sweet) close rivals. These are not so easy to cook and serve as the potato and are not likely to supplant it when it is plentiful. It might be worth while, however, to substitute these for potatoes rather often. The latter will be appreciated all the more if not served every day in the week, or at least not more than once a day. We might extend the fashion of baked beans and brown bread to roast pork with rice, ham with baked bananas, roast beef with hominy, and broiled steak with macaroni. Why not? You, Madam Housewife, are always sighing for variety, but does it never occur to you that the greatest secret of variety lies in new combinations?