my darling potato

RotatoExpress-PotatoOne thing Toastmasters is teaching me is that short is sweet. I need to be sweeter.

For my speech this past week, I spent 8 minutes talking about the history of the potato. That’s one minute longer than I should have.

Each of the first 10 speeches at Toastmasters is supposed to be 5–7 minutes long. To qualify for best speaker of the night, you need to end your speech somewhere between 5 and 7 minutes. That night, two of us went overtime and the third speaker didn’t speak for long enough to qualify. No one was best. ("And all the children are above average.")

When I write for the Freeman, where a feature article is supposed to be 800–1,200 words, my first draft is always too long. It’s tough to write anything substantive in so few words. Same problem at Toastmasters: my speeches run long.

The trick in both cases is to murder your darlings. (That authorial adage has been attributed to every major writer of the last century, from William Faulkner to Stephen King, but it seems to have originated with Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.)

I’ve always taken murder your darlings as a directive to trim that fat in my prose, to kill off the side thoughts and turns of phrase I’m most proud of, because they distract from the main purpose of the writing. Clean and efficient prose can also be beautiful.

Murder your darlings applies to more than phrasing or side thoughts; it can refer to whole scenes, several characters, or even, sometimes, what you thought was the point of your piece when you first sat down to write it.

At Toastmasters, I wanted to tell one of my favorite stories, about how the 18th-century French potato evangelist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier got the working poor of Paris to adopt the potato into their diet.

Even though the potato reached Europe shortly after Columbus introduced the New World to the Old, it took centuries to become a common part of European mealtime. For one thing, both the best medical advice and the dominant religious instruction of the time told people to avoid the supposedly malignant tuber.

While religious wars fractured Christendom, Catholic priests and Protestant ministers were united in telling their congregations to shun the potato. Why? Because it wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the Bible. Surely, if God wanted human beings to eat potatoes, He’d have mentioned them in Genesis.

If that logic strikes you as questionable, wait until you hear what early-modern Europe considered the established medicinal wisdom. According to the "doctrine of signatures," any plant’s effect on the human body can be determined by its appearance. Crack open a walnut and what you find inside the shell looks like a little brain; ergo, walnuts are good for the brain. Dig a potato out of the dirt and what do you get? A filthy, pale, gnarled clump of vegetable flesh. Ergo … potatoes cause leprosy. QED.

By the 19th century, however, the potato had become such a central part of the Western diet that it caused a population explosion in Europe.

How did this maligned root vegetable go from unholy pathogen to European staple crop?

The answer seems to be war.

When soldiers descended on your part of the countryside, they carried away everything edible they could find — above ground.

If you depended on grains, you starved. But if you also grew a few potatoes, an army could pillage all your wheat, slaughter and consume all your animals, and trample your field for months without destroying your backup source of calories. As a Plan B for the downtrodden, the potato proved superior to expectations. It turns out that an acre of potatoes is more nutritious than an acre of wheat. It may have been ugly to the eye and bland on the tongue, but the potato made the peasants who adopted it stronger and healthier — and more fertile.

When Frederick the Great discovered that foreign peasants were surviving the Prussians’ invasions because of this secret buried treasure, he had seed potatoes delivered to all his Prussian peasants, along with instructions on how to plant and harvest them, and ordered all of Prussia to become potato eaters. He threatened those who failed to cooperate with having their ears and noses cut off! The Prussian people quickly adopted a potato-based diet.

Parmentier, the hero of the story I was so hot to tell at Toastmasters, served in the French military and was taken as a prisoner of war by the Prussians. Fed nothing but potatoes for three years, he emerged healthier than when he’d been captured. He returned to France with a mission: convert his fellow countrymen to this miracle food.

Freeman editor Max Borders writes, "Ultimately, there are only two forces in this world that matter: power and persuasion. Those who love liberty shun power."

Where Frederick used power, Parmentier used persuasion. And some trickery.

The king of France was easy. For His Majesty’s birthday, Parmentier gave him potato flowers and served him various potato-based dishes. Once the king was sold, the royal court rushed to follow, followed rapidly by anyone who aspired to greater social status.

Parmentier began to hold all-potato dinner parties for the VIPs of Paris, including such foreign dignitaries as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson — which is how the "French fry" came to America; Jefferson had them served in the White House.

That brings us to my favorite part of the story. The French working class wasn’t so easily persuaded. In fact, the aristocratic association with potatoes made them ever more suspect to the impoverished Parisians on the eve of the French Revolution. So Parmentier resorted to guile. He got the king’s permission to plant 40 acres of potatoes just outside Paris, and had soldiers patrol the perimeter and chase away the inquisitive. All of Paris was soon convinced that something valuable was growing in those 40 acres.

When the soldiers withdrew at night, the city’s poor snuck in and pilfered the royal potatoes. Et voilà: Parmentier’s triumph.

That last story, the tale of Parmentier’s cunning, is what took me over my time at Toastmasters. I knew I was going over time when I told it, but that last story was the whole point of my speech.

Each speaker at Toastmasters receives a small slip of paper from every person in the meeting with comments on that evening’s speech. My reviews were generally quite positive, but a couple of them told me I should have cut the last story and ended on time.

Before delivering my speech, and while delivering it, I couldn’t imagine leaving out that story. But as soon as it was over, it became clear that the story — much as I still love it — undermined the larger story I had told.

AudiblePotatoI opened with my lifelong love of French fries, and how I no longer eat them. The narrative then followed the potato from the Americas over to Europe and back again with Thomas Jefferson. From the end of the French fry in my life to the beginning of the French fry in America: a perfect narrative circle. And one that was easily told within 5–7 minutes.

But like my scheming hero, Parmentier, I had my eye on a prize that had nothing to do with the demands of my audience. Had I focused more on the organic shape of the story I was telling, the needs and virtues of that shape, and the experience of my audience — rather than my own darlings within the story — I would have realized that Parmentier was perhaps more like Frederick than I want him to be. I should instead have emulated Thomas Jefferson’s lighter touch.