Food Culture, Ingredients

The Mystery of Potatoes

Potatoes for Sale

Hidden beneath the earth, potatoes are growing in Cuzco.  Soon it will be harvest time and they will be lifted from their womb in the earth and either stored or brought to market.  New potatoes will become all the rage.

Corn is justifiably celebrated in Cuzco.   Its tassels shiver in the breezes as the rains slowly end and the dry season begins.   Corn fields seem to fill the nearby Sacred Valley and ears of fresh corn fill Cuzco’s markets.

It is so much more public and dramatic than the potatoes who live their youth underground.  Corn stands proud in large masses, as it reaches for the sun.

Not surprisingly the Incas celebrated corn, as do locals today, where corn is a treasured food which graces many festive dishes.

Boiled Corn Ready to Eat
Boiled Corn Ready to Eat

Potatoes are not so vain.  Although the plant is pretty and its flowers bright, it still sits close to the earth and grows lots of tubers out of sight.  It is not front and center seemingly anywhere, but potatoes are found in almost every dish in Cuzco.  There would be no Cuzco without potatoes.

Just as we need both the earth and the sky, anthropologist Luis Millones argues Cuzco and other Andeans depend on both potatoes and corn, though the potatoes often get second or no billing.  In his essay entitled in Spanish  “Plants or Gods: The Counterpoint between Corn and Potatoes,” Millones reads dynastic history of the Incas as a story about the endless struggle.

In this case, Millones quotes the chronicler Murúa that at some point  Inca Crown Prince Urcon had a lot of dirt brought to Cuzco and an artificial mountain made which was planted with potatoes specifically for his table.  But Urcon lost out to his brother Pachacutec Inca, who defeated the Chancas and gave the cult of the sun and corn to the Incas.

Fresh Potatoes Still Covered in Dirt
Fresh Potatoes Still Covered in Dirt

But potatoes were still there and still cultivated in the opposition of the earth and the sky, though the sun begins its journey every day by coming out of the earth bright and shiny, before weakening and going back to the ground.

The potato may have lost that round, in the person of an Inca prince whose name seems to refer to a hill, but Millones cites another story from the Huarochirí cycle of myths.  In this one Huatiacuri, whose name refers to huatia, potatoes baked in ovens made from clods of dirt, wins various competitions.

Though his appearance does not seem impressive, but rather ragged and dirty, Huatiacuri beats all competition.  He does so through his solid strength and through redefining any situation to his own advantage against the shiny, bright, and popular.

Millones notes that at harvest time, the Andean had a ritual of weaving straw through the roots of the potato to make a figure that the Spanish found repulsive.  Yet during the sacred times of fasting this doll would be brought out and celebrated as it fasted with the people, accompanying them always.

Millones sees in these stories and the tale of the figure a cult to the potato that even today seems to be almost invisible in stories about food and life in the region, despite the importance  of potatoes in the people’s diet.

Potato Harvest from Guaman Poma
Potato Harvest from Guaman Poma

But the potato is more than simply an accompaniment to more flashy and public things like a steak, pollo a la brasa, chicharrón, or lechón.

It stems from the world within, ukupacha as it is called.  This is where the dead go, but it is also the space of regeneration, from which babies and all new life comes.  Just as a head is argued to be a seed that can regenerate the body–like in the famous story of the Inca king who will someday return, reborn from his buried head– so the potato that resembles a head replete with eyes regularly generates an entire plant and new potatoes.

In the potato’s planting, rebirth, and harvest which allows humans to survive, Millones finds the basic story of fertility and life.  It is the root religion of the people around Cuzco, even to this day.

Furthermore, potatoes are often compared to stones, Millones notes.  And from stone the Incas came.

The potato, as a result, is personified as something living like people which provides a model and a means for people to live as well.  As a result, the humble potato in its thousands of varieties is truly sacred to the people of Cuzco.  It is life.

And before too long the miracle of the potatoes will be made known when they come from the ground, fresh and new, to fill markets, bins, and plates throughout Cuzco. The Cuzqueños, without much fanfare, will go to the hills and make mounded ovens of clods carefully piled up in which they can bake potatoes, as if celebrating the lost Inca Urcon and the god Huatiacuri, whose name might just be significant for all people of Cuzco, son (children) of huatia, baked potatoes.

Not only are Cuzqueños a people of corn, they are indeed children of the potato.

Firing up the Earth to Make Huatia
Firing up the Earth to Make Huatia
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