In the early days of the American Revolution, a number of battles took place in New England eventually causing the British to flee their Boston stronghold. The flight took place on March 17, 1776. George Washington was commander in chief of the colonial forces. His password for the day was `Saint Patrick.’
I stumbled on that fact a number of years ago, and it has never ceased giving me a chuckle. What a wise guy that Washington was! Imagine if you will: George Washington has been made commander of the rebel fighters. The majority are Irish and Scots-Irish who have fled English tyranny in Ireland. “How can we trust a man who bears the very name of England’s cursed king?” they mutter. British troops are being routed from the most Irish bastion in the colonies. Washington, musing what to choose for the day’s password, in a moment of genius hits on the one phrase the British will never guess: Saint Patrick. The word goes out, passed along from brogue to brogue with many a wink and nod. To a man, the battered colonial volunteers bond to their Anglo commander in chief. “British blood may flow in this fellow’s veins,” they say with pride, “but he is an Irishman and one of us in heart.”
Less than four months later, a document is sent to the British king. The Declaration of Independence. It is signed by 56 men. Eight are Irish, three by birth and five by blood. It is handwritten by an Irishman, Charles Thomson, and printed by another, John Dunlap. So began the United States of America.
Years pass. Ireland continues in thrall to England. Again and again famine stalks the land. Millions of Irish men, women and children seek freedom and fortune in that Irish refuge across the sea – America. And from them, come forth in ever swelling numbers leaders and innovators that shape the nature of their adopted nation.
In every field of endeavor – from the legislature to literature, music to medicine, industry to art, and science to sports – the rosters are filled with Irish names. But no one and nothing is so telling of Irish influence on these United States as the kitchen coup counted by the humble potato.
Ask anyone where potatoes were first grown and odds are you’ll be told `Ireland.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. Potatoes were virtually unknown to the global palate until the discovery of the New World. As the Conquistadors marched through South America pillaging ancient civilization for treasure, the foods they discovered proved far more valuable than the gold they sought. From the holds of Spanish galleons, potatoes found their way to farms and gardens all over Europe.
There are Irish folk tales of potatoes washing ashore from wrecks of the Spanish Armada that stalked the British seas during the reign of Elizabeth I. Actually, it is much more likely that Sir Francis Drake brought the South American tubers back from an expedition in 1586 and gave some plants to his friend, Sir Walter Raleigh, who planted them at his estate in Youghal, County Cork.
The new vegetable quickly became a staple crop of the island’s agricultural economy. Potatoes were a godsend. They were easy to grow, requiring only an initial planting with minimal tending. They were easy to cook, needing only a pot and a fire. And they were abundant. Supplemented with plenty of fresh whole milk, greens, and a bit of meat, fish or eggs, the average country person had ready access to a nutritious diet.
“Be eating one potato, peeling a second, have a third in your fist, and your eye on a fourth.” The proverb sums up Irish devotion and dependency on potatoes. For nearly two hundred years the ancient South American plant nourished Ireland’s poor. A good potato harvest could feed a farm family for eleven months, but stores from the season before usually began to run out by early summer. Even in good years, July was a time of want, earning itself the sobriquet of `the hungry month.’
In the warm wet summer of 1845, a fungus attacked the potato crop, and as winds carried the invisible spores from county to county, green fields turned black in days and the tubers rotted. Blights had troubled local areas before, notably Mayo (1831) and Donegal (1836). This time the infestation was national. The year 1846 brought pure disaster. More than two-thirds of the harvest rotted, and in some western areas the crop was lost completely. Blight struck again in 1849 and 1851.
With the main food source for people and livestock destroyed five times in seven years, Ireland was devastated. One and a half million people died of starvation, cholera, and famine fever. Another million emigrated. In the following decades, the tide of emigration swelled to a rushing flood as millions more fled the specter of starvation. More than one million Irish immigrants came to the United States, bringing with them their love for potatoes.
Initially, Americans were suspicious of potatoes as they belong to the botanical nightshade family that includes many poisonous plants. While it’s true that the leaves of the potato plant are toxic, the tubers are perfectly safe for consumption. Thomas Jefferson was one of the earliest American potato converts. While serving as ambassador to France, he took a fancy to potatoes cut in strips and fried (the origin of `French Fries’) and added the dish to his list of favorites served frequently to guests at formal meals during his presidency. Even so, most Americans chose to feed spuds to their pigs rather than set them on the family dinner table.
But the Irish knew a good thing when they bit into it. Potatoes are fat and cholesterol free, and one serving of a 5.3 ounce, medium potato provides: 45 percent of the Daily Value for vitamin C, 21 percent of the Daily Value for potassium, three grams of fiber, and only 100 calories. Add to that the fact that potatoes can be served baked, boiled, roasted, fried, mashed or hashed, and it’s easy to see how spuds became America’s favorite vegetable.
When the Irish began arriving by the boatload during the Famine immigrations, the tide of American anti-potato-ism started to shift. Today, more than 1.3 million acres across 35 states are planted in potatoes with an annual yield of nearly half a billion bushels. Considering that several dozen potatoes are contained in every bushel, the real yearly U.S. spud count is in the trillions.
Potatoes are now such a part of the national diet that someone who prefers living simply is called `a meat and potatoes man.’ Potato chips are the favorite international snack food, and the average American consumes approximately 140 pounds of spuds per year. Buyer demand for potatoes is so high that growers have begun producing ancient varieties with naturally colored flesh. This 4th of July why not complement your backyard barbecue or picnic with a potato salad made of Ireland’s favorite red-skinned potatoes tossed with some peeled Idaho whites and heritage Peruvian blues? Nothing would be more Irish. And you just might start a revolution. Sláinte! ♦
Classic Potato Salad
3 pounds potatoes, unpeeled
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons white-wine vinegar
3/4 cup finely chopped onion
3/4 cup finely chopped celery
1 1/2 cups finely chopped green pepper
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley mayonnaise
Bring a large pot of water to boil, add potatoes, and cook until they are tender but do not fall apart when pierced with a knife. Drain them and when they are cool enough to handle, peel and cut them into 1/2-inch cubes. Place the potatoes in a large bowl and gently stir in the salt, vinegar, celery, onion, green pepper and parsley. Add enough mayonnaise to bind the ingredients to your taste preference. Serves 6.
NOTE: If you use heritage potatoes with colored flesh, cook each type separately since every variety demands a different cooking time to reach knife-tender readiness.
6 to 8 unpeeled baking potatoes, e.g. Russet or Yukon Gold
1 bunch scallions (use the bulb and green stem)
1 1/2 cups milk
4-8 tablespoons butter salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup of fresh green peas freshly chopped parsley
Scrub the potatoes and boil them in their jackets. Finely chop the scallions. Cover the scallions and fresh peas in cold milk with a pinch of salt and slowly bring to a boil. Simmer for about 3 minutes, then turn off the heat and leave to infuse. Peel and mash the freshly boiled potatoes and, while hot, mix with the milk and pea mixture. Beat in some of the butter. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper. Serve in one large or four individual bowls with a knob of butter melting in the center. Garnish with the freshly chopped parsley.