The first instant mash?

Looking at my copy of The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle for July 1802, I came across an interesting letter dated 16th July from Anthony Sinnot that sent me off on a research rabbit hole. This gentleman seems to have spent a considerable amount of time thinking about potatoes.

To his credit he was concerned about being able to preserve for longer a crop that rapidly deteriorates; a crop that being plentiful and cheap, could form a valuable part of the diet of the poor. He recommended:

‘The potatoes to be boiled in a great quantity; then water being poured off, they should be peeled, and the pulp collected in large flat vessels and exposed to the heat of fire’ (he suggests a malt kiln for this purpose) ‘till the watery particles be totally and entirely evaporated; the pulp or matter then being efflorescent, dry, and farinaceous, should be crushed or hammered into masses of two or three feet in diameter, which may be formed in tubs or square boxes. These flakes of the amylum, or nutriment substance of the potatoe (sic), would keep a considerable time.’

He pointed out that that by preparing potatoes in this way they will be ‘a ready support to human beings at the least possible expence (sic).’ He recommended that the navy should stock up on these potato flakes as they would be a better preventative of scurvy than the biscuit and he also promoted their use in the home as an alternative when flour was scarce.

Now, whether it was his method or a completely different one I have been unable to establish, but some years later Edwards Patent Potato (1845) was being touted as a suitable addition to the diet for all sea-going people by the editor of the Nautical Magazine and Naval Chronicle for 1845 (available online).

Sir William Burnett, the Director-General of the Medical Department of the Navy was said to have written to the Patentees: “I am perfectly satisfied that your Prepared Potato forms a desirable addition to the usual diet at sea.”

In the same journal it is noted that the Board of the Admiralty approved the use of Edward’s Potato to ships on the Arctic Expedition. John Wilson, a Royal navy surgeon states in a letter dated April 22nd 1845 that he had used it to good effect on a convict ship to Van Dieman’s Land and that the journey was notable for there being very little sickness, no deaths, and no scurvy.

In the twentieth century, research was being undertaken both in the UK and the US to discover ways of supplying troops with this valuable nutrient in the most effective and least costly way; in the US a patent was granted in1912 for ‘Dehydrated potatoes and the process of preparing the same’, but it was not until World War Two that things really took off, eventually bringing us the instant mashed potato that became available to domestic consumers.

What set me off on this particular piece of research was how Sinnot made clear in his letter of 1802 how dependent the population was on a successful crop for their very lives. If something is in short supply these days, we can easily substitute it with something else; we don’t go hungry. We can shop round the world, we are not dependent on the farmer up the road having a good growing season. Not so in years gone by (and still not the case in many parts of the world today).

The humble instant mash, a product we almost never see these days on supermarket shelves, was once considered a lifesaver.


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