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Why do Germans eat potatoes?

german potatoes.jpg

Wait, what? What sort of question is this? You mean they didn't always eat potatoes? Don't they just eat it because it is there and it is tasty??



The potato was introduced to Germany only about 250 years ago. Even though it was a popular choice in many other countries, Germans had always vehemently rejected potatoes - they thought it tasted terrible!

Ah ok but this is still a "potatic" story. Why should I care? Well, because something so obvious and widely accepted as the potato was only introduced with an
 understanding of human nature and how to overcome our innate resistance to change. 


To start off, we introduce Frederick the Great, the longest-reigning King of Prussia (former Germany) - 46 years he wore the crown. And he was broadly accepted to be a very accomplished King - modernising Prussia, improve state bureaucracy and upward mobility, and winning many wars. 

But as the tributes at his grave (even till today) show, the introduction of these delicious spuds rank high on his list of accomplishments. 

Frederik the Great Potatoes.jpg

Frederick saw 2 major benefits for Prussia to consume potatoes:

First, it would be an alternate carbohydrate source to wheat (used to make bread). An insurance policy - even in times of bad harvest of wheat, there would be a secondary food source that would prevent famine. This was particularly important as Prussia had been at war during the 1700s, and the risk of a bad harvest of wheat could be catastrophic. 

A second benefit - economics: with potatoes as an alternative source, wheat farmers and distributors will no longer hold a monopoly of carbohydrates, and cannot jack up prices indiscriminately as there is an alternative. Food prices are likely to be more stable, beneficial for the common man.


So Frederick started a propaganda campaign to encourage Prussians to grow and eat potatoes. One of his most famous campaign slogans was in fact "Potatoes instead of truffles!"
(Ah... if he only lived 250 years later, he would have realised that "Potatoes with truffles" would have worked better)

But the Prussians were not sold. They thought that the potato, a dull root vegetable, looked unappetising (french fries hadn't been invented yet). And the Prussians were not people who readily embraced change, not least with their diet. There was the saying that developed: "was der Bauer nicht kennt, frisst er nicht" or "what the peasant is not sure of, he will not eat." The town of Kolberg went so far as to issue an official reply to the King. “The things [potatoes] have neither smell nor taste, not even the dogs will eat them, so what use are they to us?“


But Frederick was not a man that was easily defeated. Before the age of marketing, he was already a most talented marketer. He realised that persuasion need not come from words, but shifting the perceived value of the potato in the eyes of the consumer


He ordered potato fields to be cultivated near his palace in Berlin. Then he ordered some of his best palace guards to guard these fields. Now the Prussian might not know what the potato was and hence would not try it. But they certainly knew that if something was so heavily guarded, it must be valuable and worth stealing.

As it turned out that was exactly Frederick's plan. In fact, he had instructed his officers to appear like they were guarding the potatoes, but to be deliberately distracted or unobservant so that the people could get away with stealing them.


You can guess what happened next. People stole the potatoes and grew them and grew to love them.


This example of Frederick's and the potatoes show us a few things:

  • persuasion is often better than compulsion. As King, he could have forcibly introduced the potato. Instead, Frederick found a way to make the people want it for themselves, reducing discontent and resistance. 

  • all value is perceived value. And there is a whole list of examples on this site that illustrate this. Most of us will be familiar with the Chilean Sea Bass, a common dish in many restaurants. But have you ever seen a picture of the "bass" itself? It's not even a bass, and it is somewhat grotesque. 

  • to persuade people, facts, evidence and reasons rarely work. Once we have made up our minds on something, it becomes very difficult to change. Instead of actively disagreeing and offering reasons and evidence why, a much more effective way is to change how a person views a decision. We have an entire chapter dedicated to this.


*There is also an unverified story of Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey. The legend goes that in a bid to modernise the country, he wanted people to stop wearing veils. However, he was worried about resistance if he had given a direct order. So What did Ataturk do? Apparently, he made it compulsory for all prostitutes to wear veils when they were working.

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