The introduction of the potato to Europe from South America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries led to one of the greatest increases of wealth in recorded history. Potatoes yielded from two to four times more calories per acre than grain did, required no milling, were harder for foreign armies to steal (it was stored underground unlike grain), prevented scurvy at sea, and could be grown in fallow or even urban plots of land. It is said that a single acre of potatoes and the milk of one cow was enough to feed a whole family (or used for trade).
Still, despite its many benefits, potatoes had to overcome ingrained superstition and skepticism towards this foreign invader from rural populations, who believed it responsible for everything including syphilis, leprosy, and sterility. It was even banned from the British court, after an early feast included poisonous potato leaves, leaving many in attendance deathly ill.
A great propaganda push occurred in France, beginning with the royal court, by Antoine-Augustin Parmentier – who himself had survived on potatoes during his time as a prisoner of war in Prussia. Marie Antoinette wore a headdress of potato flowers at a fancy dress ball, creating a persuasive fashion craze amongst noblewomen at the time. Overcoming the resistance of farmers, however, required a more crafty manoeuvre.
In 1785… the King let (Parmentier) plant 100 useless acres outside Paris, France in potatoes with troops keeping the field heavily guarded. This aroused public curiosity and the people decided that anything so carefully guarded must be valuable. (Guards were instructed to accept bribes to steal plants). One night Parmentier allowed the guards to go off duty, and the local farmers, as he had hoped, went into the field, confiscated the potatoes and planted them on their own farms. From this small start, the habit of growing and eating potatoes spread.