Stocking Up for the End Times? Consider the Potato

If the world ended tomorrow, and you survived, what would you eat?

In Andy Weir’s hard-to-put-down book The Martian, astronaut Mark Watney has been left for dead on Mars. Now tens of millions of miles from home, stranded, incommunicado, and very much alive, he has to figure out how to survive on his own for four years. His best bet, he decides, is potatoes.

It’s not a bad choice either. Potatoes are prolific, filling, and packed with useful nutrients. One middling-sized spud contains 3 grams of protein, 2.7 grams of dietary fiber, 23 grams of carbohydrate—mostly in the form of starch, plus significant amounts of potassium and other minerals, and about half the adult Recommended Daily Allowance of Vitamin C. In Richard Henry Dana’s best-selling memoir Two Years Before the Mast, first published in 1840, the debilitated and scurvy-ridden crew is saved in the nick of time by encountering a brig providentially provisioned with potatoes.

Watney’s Martian sojourn is the ultimate in Robinsonades—that is, stories with castaway and survival themes, so named for Daniel Defoe’s famous 1719 book, Robinson Crusoe. The main character was based on a real castaway, Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk, who spent four years on a deserted archipelago off the coast of Chile, living on fish, crayfish, goat soup, and turnips.

Almost all Robinsonades, inevitably, center around food. Crusoe survives on goats and turtle eggs, and eventually manages to plant crops: barley, rice, and grapes. Ben Gunn, marooned on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, lives on goats, berries, and oysters (and spends a lot of time dreaming forlornly about cheese). The Swiss Family Robinson, stars of the 1812 book of the same name, have the good luck to wash up on a lush, but biologically peculiar, island, furnished with everything from coconuts, figs, and flamingos to sugarcane, sago, potatoes, buffalos, ostriches, honeybees, bears, elephants, and kangaroos. (Also goats.) Tom Hanks, in the 2000 movie Cast Away, doesn’t make out quite so well; he’s forced to survive for four years on coconuts and fish, with nothing for company but Wilson, a volley ball.

Not all survivors, on the other hand, occupy remote islands, archipelagos, or planets. Many—variously known as survivalists, preppers, or doomers —are right here, preparing for imminent disaster in the form of governmental collapse, global pandemic, nuclear or biological terrorist attacks, environmental disaster, religious apocalypse, or an asteroid strike.

As it turns out, doomers have been around for a long time. An Assyrian clay tablet announced bleakly that the human jig was up as of 2800 BCE. (“Our earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end. Bribery and corruption are common.”) Most Western Europeans expected annihilation at the hands of the Anti-Christ in the year 1000, a date ominously foreshadowed by fires, floods, famines, comets, and the births of two-headed calves. Students of the Great Pyramid calculated that 1881 would do us in; and comet-watchers were convinced that we’d all choke to death in 1910, poisoned by vapors from Halley’s returning tail.

Nostradamus prognosticated that all would be over in 1999. To many, 2000 seemed even more likely, due to a computer glitch known as Y2K or the millennium bug, predicted to bring on the worldwide collapse of utilities, communications networks, factories, financial institutions, and airplanes. Some interpreters of the Mayan calendar called for world’s end just before Christmas in 2012, an event to be accompanied by polar flip-flop, earthquakes, tsunamis, and sun-blocking volcanic eruptions.

Global disaster hasn’t struck yet, but there’s no denying that the unhappy possibility is there. Threats of impending doom fuel survivalist movements, driving people to prepare for the worst. Doomers stockpile weaponry, water, iodine, bandages, blankets, batteries, gold, silver, and duct tape—and, of course, food.

Food lists for would-be survivors are legion. Most emphasize shelf life (the longer, the better), nutrition, and high calorie count. Common inclusions are canned salmon or tuna, dried beans, rice, beef jerky, pasta, peanut butter, and coffee. Salt, sugar, and alcohol—say a couple of cases of vodka—are often recommended; also popular are grains—buckwheat, dried corn, barley, oats, and quinoa—and pasta. Those who can’t cook stash instant Ramen noodles and hard candy.

Though food storage and preparation are keys to survival, most of us don’t know as much as we think we do about either, according to Carol Deppe, author of The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times. Thrown back on our own resources, we’ll have to turn to gardening—and for survivors, this means not just the odd plot of mesclun and cherry tomatoes, but heavy-duty staple crops. “Most gardeners know how to grow field corn,” says Deppe. “But most don’t have the knowledge to turn corn into gourmet-quality fast-cooking polenta or savory corn gravy or even cornbread…let alone fine-textured cakes.” (Well, in my case, too true.)

On the other hand, as Deppe also points out, anybody with a shovel can grow potatoes; and a mere acre of potatoes is enough to feed a family of six for a year. Potatoes carried us through the Little Ice Age and fueled the population boom that provided workers for the Industrial Revolution. Potatoes, according to one estimate, accounted for up to 65 percent of Europe’s post-1700 population increase. Potatoes, more than once, have saved our collective bacon.

You can’t, unfortunately, live on potatoes alone, though occasionally people have tried. For one thing, potatoes lack crucial vitamins, notably vitamin A, essential for eyesight.

Astronaut Mark Watney, luckily, also had vitamin pills.