Saturday, July 16, 2011

Potato Royale - a PR master class

French royal Marie Antoinette famously promoted the potato during the 18th century, by wearing potato blossoms in her hair. But why?

The royals were introduced to the potato by French nutritionist, agronomist and chemist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, who had a penchant for potatoes and a real skill for Public Relations.

Parmentier had served as a army pharmacist during the Seven Years War, and was taken prisoner by the Prussians. During his captivity he was fed only potatoes, at that time a foodstuff only fed to pigs, not humans. Indeed, at that time a 1748 French law was in place explicitly forbidding potato cultivation, chiefly on the grounds that it was believed to cause leprosy.

On his return home Parmentier made it his mission to popularize the tuber, hitherto so dismissed by his countrymen. His first breakthrough came in 1772 when he won a prize from the Académie Besançon for his proposal of potatoes as a source of nourishment for patients suffering from dysentery. As a result of his efforts the Paris Faculty of Medicine then declared potatoes to be edible.

A year later, in 1773, Parmentier published his thesis, Inquiry into nourishing vegetables that at times of necessity could be substituted for ordinary food. His growing notoriety gained Parmentier an invitation to the court of King Louis XVI on the occasion of the king's birthday.

Parmentier showed his mastery of public relations by bringing to court a bouquet of potato flowers as a birthday gift. The King graciously accepted the gift, deftly placing one of the flowers in his lapel.

But it was the king's wife, Queen Marie Antoinette, who most sponsored Parmentier's cause by later wearing the potato blossoms in her hair. Potato flowers quickly became a fashion among the aristocracy, just as potatoes were now permitted to, and did, become a staple for the poor.

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