Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was the 18th-century Don Draper. His potato PR stunts cemented him in history as one of the very few personas responsible for spreading the use of potatoes in cooking, and especially in French and European cuisine. He had served as French military chemist and botanist with close associations to the king Louis XVI.
Parmentier in prison
Parmentier was first introduced to the starchy vegetable during the moment he was captured by the Prussians, at the time of the 7-year war in France in the 18th century. During his time in prison, potatoes were the main food he had to eat and at that time in France as well as other European countries, potatoes were only used to feed hogs. In 1772, based on his previous years in prison, Parmentier had studied and proposed the use of potatoes as a source of nourishment and treatment for dysenteric patients.
His efforts eventually paid off and on the same year, the Paris faculty of medicine declared potatoes to be an edible food just like the rest of the vegetables, but it wasn’t enough to make them popular in the minds of people. Parmentier, with the support of the king and the queen, did a series of publicity stunts to get the french people interested in potatoes, making them seem like they were something really precious and prestigious to eat.
One night he instructed the guards to leave, so civilians would come and “steal” the potatoes. And so they did.
Among his most notable stunts were the avant-garde potato dishes and potato bouquets cooked for the royal couple and their famous guests like Benjamin Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier. And his initiative to guard stored potatoes with troops, to give the impression that they were only reserved for only a few — but of course, his intention and hope was actually the opposite as he wanted people to sneak in and steal the potatoes. One night he instructed the guards to leave, so civilians would come and “steal” the potatoes. And so they did. Farmers came in and took the potatoes and grew them in their own farms. Under the order of King Louis XV1, he was allotted 54 arpents of unutilized ground to cultivate potatoes.
Ever since, hundreds of farmers across France and Europe have been cultivating potatoes and his stunts were followed by other European leaders like Ioannis Kapodistrias who used the “guarded” cellar trick to get Greek people stealing potatoes as well, during the Greek-Turkish revolution of 1821.