The word potato comes from the Haitian word “batata” which refers to a variety of sweet potatoes. The word came into Spanish as “patata.” When the later variants (called papas by the natives) were found, they were also called “patata,” and the word made its way into English as potato. The slang usage “spud” derives from the spade-like tool used to dig ‘em out. The arrival of the potato in Britain and Ireland is unclear, attributed to both Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake, but generally agreed to be in the 1590s. The Protestants in northern Ireland and Scotland refused to plant them, since they were not mentioned in the Bible. The Catholic Irish overcame this obstacle by sprinkling them with holy water.
Europeans generally first thought that the potato was poisonous, a common accusation against members of the genus Solanum, which includes deadly nightshade and tomatoes (another new world food that was also considered poisonous when brought to Europe. Potatoes weren’t popular, despite their reputation as an aphrodisiac. Shakespeare mentions them in this context in The Merry Wives of Windsor. In 1784, Count Rumford used potatoes in place of barley in the gruel served to the workhouse inmates, because it was cheaper. He had to conceal from the inmates that he was using potatoes, for fear they wouldn’t eat it.
So how did potatoes come to their present popularity? The generally accepted story is that a French army officer named Parmentier was taken prisoner during the Seven Years War (1756-1763), and ate potatoes as part of his prison diet in Hamburg, Germany. He found that he liked them. After his release, he managed to introduce them to the French court (“Your majesty, the potato. Potato, I have the honour to introduce King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. Introductions all the way round.”) Marie Antoinette reportedly once wore a potato flower as a corsage. But she decided to take a break from eating cake and so ate potatoes. What the queen did was what everyone did, so the potato became fashionable and entered French cuisine. From France, to the world. As an indication of the speed of this change in attitude, during the French Revolution, some 25 years later, the royal gardens at Tuileries were turned into potato fields. By the 1800s, the Irish had come to depend on the potato almost entirely. A fungus spread totally wiped out the crop in the 1840s, leading to the tragic and famous potato famine. Also in the 1840s, pomme frites (“fried potatoes”) first appeared in Paris. Sadly, we don’t know the name of the ingenious chef who first sliced the potato into long slender pieces and fried them. But they were immediately popular, and were sold on the streets of Paris by push-cart vendors. Frites spread to America where they were called French fried potatoes. Popular conjecture concludes that they came from France and they were fried potatoes, so they were called “French fried potatoes.” The name was shortened to “french fries” in the 1930s. By the way, the verb “to french” in cooking has come to mean to cut in long, slender strips, and some people insist that “french fries” come from that term. However, the French fried potato was known since the middle 1800s, while the OED cites the first use of the verb “to french” around 1895, so it appears pretty convincing that “french fried potatoes” came before the verb “frenching.” The origin of the name is thus the country of origin French and not the cooking term french. In the U.K., fried fish had been on sale by street vendors since the 1600s. In 1864, a brilliant (but, alas, unknown) Brit teamed French fried potatoes (called “chips” in English) with fried fish, to create the famous and popular fish and chips.