St. Patrick's Day and the spud

Did you know that St. Patrick never tasted a potato? Discover the fascinating history of the potato in Irish cuisine and in one of our favorite holidays

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By Dirk Van Susteren


Pity the potato. It seldom gets the respect it deserves. A case in point is Mr. Potato Head, the toy with the goofy face that suggests potatoes are to be played with, not savored. Or consider the phrase “couch potato,” associating the tuber with sloth, a cardinal sin. Even in one of its most popular incarnations — chips — the poor potato is scorned: “Junk food,” sniff the health police.


Oh, yes, the potato does have its moments. There is, after all, an official potato month. That would be September, when it usually is harvested. There also has been an “International Year of the Potato” — 2008 — designated by the United Nations. Let’s face it, though: The potato too often gets a raw deal. Most attempts at burnishing its image are half-baked.


Yet once a year, on St. Patrick’s Day (March 17), without gimmickry or the efforts of public relations specialists, the potato takes its rightful place at our tables. It’s not always the star of the dinner performance, but it certainly is a fine accompanist. Imagine a shepherd’s pie, leg of lamb, Irish stew, or corned beef and cabbage (even cabbage gets better billing!) without potatoes. One can survive St. Paddy’s Day without stout, but not without spuds.


You have to hand it to the Irish: They’re loyal to their potatoes.


Noel C. Cullen notes Ireland’s enduring reverence for the tuber in his 2001 cookbook, Elegant Irish Cooking: “Although it carries both blessings and curses for its role in Irish history, the potato still enjoys an honored place in Irish cuisine,” he writes. “Humble spuds, also affectionately referred to as murphys or praties, are still an important and essential part of the Irish diet. Indeed, most Irish people consider a meal without a potato incomplete.” And that’s why we should at least raise our forks to it on St. Patrick’s Day.


 Yet the potato is a relative newcomer to Ireland — having stepped onto the stage more than a millennium after St. Patrick arrived to help convert the Celts to Christianity. The patron saint of Ireland never sampled the nation’s favorite vegetable.


Potatoes arrived in Ireland, as St. Patrick did, by boat. They landed in Europe in the 16th century, brought by Spanish explorers who had learned about them from the Incas of South America. They were cultivated in Spain, England, France, and Germany before they arrived in Ireland. Exactly how they came to the Emerald Isle is not clear. Some historians surmise that Sir Walter Raleigh, the English aristocrat and explorer, brought them to his estate in Ireland, where he grew them in his gardens. Another theory is that they washed ashore as jetsam from a foundering Spanish vessel and were found and planted by Irish peasants.


 The curse to which Cullen refers was real and dreadful. It was the poor people of Ireland’s near-total dependence on the potato  that led to their vulnerability when the potato blight hit the Irish crop in 1845. One million people in the crowded nation of 8 million — most of them poor peasants — starved to death over the next six years. Another million fled to America, Canada, and Australia in desperation.


The blight, a fungus, had turned the potatoes on which people so depended to oozing, inedible mush. In addition to starvation, the blight caused civil strife, political turmoil, and deepening resentment toward the English, who ruled Ireland. The “Great Hunger” was a watershed event in Irish history, and it’s a wonder how the nation ever got around to embracing the potato again.


Yet blights come and go; the Irish remained desperate, and the island’s mild and moist weather and soil conditions were ideal for the potato. It remained key to a cuisine that for more than a century was considered remarkable only for its high degree of blandness. But about 20 years ago, coinciding with a boom in the national economy, Irish chefs and home cooks began rediscovering and touting their traditional foods, whether it was potatoes, cheeses, lamb, poultry, or seafood. If modern Irish cuisine had three catchwords, they would be “simple, fresh, and tasty.”


“Today people are buzzing about a ‘new’ Irish cuisine,” writes Margaret M. (McGlew) Johnson in her 2003 book, The New Irish Table. “The days of bad jokes about Irish food are finally over, and the image of Irish cooking — its legacy of famine, emigration, wars, and The Troubles (Catholics-Protestant conflicts in Northern Ireland) — is slowly being eclipsed by a more modern, inspired, and cosmopolitan approach.”


The potato played a big role in that transformation, she said in a recent telephone interview. Many of Ireland’s best chefs found ways to “gentrify” it.


“There are so many kinds of potatoes grown in Ireland that restaurants list the varieties on their menus,” she said. And menus are updated as a season progresses and new varieties become available. “The Italians have pasta; the Asians have rice; and the Irish have potatoes, which are a part of the fabric of Irish life.”

Johnson, whose grandmother immigrated to America in 1898, and whose mother “served potatoes every day” when Johnson was growing up in Newburyport, Massachusetts, offers several traditional potato recipes in The Irish Heritage Cookbook. They are authentic and worth a try for any St. Patrick’s Day celebration (see recipes page 68 to 70).


Take boxty, a potato pancake, for example. Sure, it can be jazzed up with beef, chicken, or bacon, but Johnson suggests a simple pan-fried mixture of grated and mashed potatoes, flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk. She offers recipes for champ (also known as poundies), colcannon, potato soufflé, potato-leek soup, and potato and turnip casserole.


In Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is a relatively quiet day, a religious holiday in which the faithful often attend Mass and come home for a quiet family meal. In the United States, where an estimated 35 million people profess to having some Irish heritage, St. Patrick’s Day is considered a secular holiday more than a liturgical holy day. It is celebrated on the streets in parades of all sizes — from New York’s historic St. Patrick’s Day Parade (first held in 1762) up Fifth Avenue, which attracts crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands, to the one occasionally held in Cedar Falls, Iowa, sponsored by St. Patrick Church, which attracts crowds numbering in the dozens. The Cedar Falls parade, a lighthearted affair, was once led by the church’s former pastor, dressed as St. Patrick.


 On St. Patrick’s Day in the United States it’s the Irish pubs, not the churches, that are jammed. “We are always busy on St. Patrick’s Day,” says Michael Young, owner of the historic Landmark Tavern, one of New York’s oldest Irish taverns. Young, who grew up in Tipperary and who came to the United States in 1986, says his menu on the holiday will feature such standard Irish fare as lamb shank, shepherd’s pie, bangers and mash (the Irish version of the English favorite), and corned beef and cabbage. Potatoes, he promises, will figure prominently.

Jim Seely, chef at the Plough & Stars in Cambridge, Massachusetts, expects the usual mob this St. Patrick’s Day, so he is offering a simplified menu to keep things running smoothly.


“We can do hundreds of things with potatoes. …The possibilities are endless,” he says.  


 A crowd also is expected 1,000 miles away in Edina, Minnesota, at Church of St. Patrick, a parish founded 152 years ago by Irish immigrants. The church traditionally holds a “Pub Night” on the Saturday before March 17 in the church’s social hall. The celebration seems to lack a certain spiritual gravitas, but the pastor, Father Greg Welch, said the event is meant to be fun and to remind parishioners of “the roots of their faith-based community.”


The menu varies but doubtless will include corned beef and cabbage, soda bread, and beer from a local brewery, reports the parish activities and communications coordinator, Susie Osacho. “Potatoes? Of course, we will have potatoes!” Osacho exclaimed after a query. “It would not be St. Patrick’s Day without potatoes!”

Dirk Van Susteren

Dirk Van Susteren is a freelance writer and editor based in Calais, Vermont.