Edythe Preet writes about Ireland’s relationship with its signature crop.
Back in first grade, my “see Spot run” primer told how Dick and Jane grew potatoes in their backyard and roasted them in an autumn leaf bonfire. If those kids can do that, I thought, so can I. Mom supplied a few spuds that had begun to sprout “eyes,” and we buried them in a skimpy strip of dirt edging our row-house driveway. Impatiently, as summer dragged on, I watched my precious potato vine overflow onto the cement.
When the leaves on our neighborhood trees began turning autumn colors and the lumpy dirt suggested there might actually be some potatoes hiding under the soil, a little digging yielded a modest mound of petite spuds. The joy of harvesting was only minimally diminished when Mom drew the line at roasting my crop under a pile of leaves in the city street, and baked them in the oven along with a celebratory roast. At dinner that night, Dad swore they were the best taters he had ever tasted, and I went to bed dreaming of the piles of spuds I would harvest the following year, which of course never happened.
In the intervening decades, I have eaten potatoes boiled, broiled, baked, roasted, fried, mashed, and hashed. Hot and cold, crisp and fluffy, plain and embellished, jackets on and jackets off. I make potato salad infrequently, because after one bite I have to employ strict self-discipline not to eat the whole bowlful. The same is true for potatoes au gratin, potatoes roasted with garlic and rosemary, or even plain old mashed potatoes and gravy. Mildly put, I am a potato addict.
Some of the blame can be ascribed to my Irish heritage. Ask anyone where potatoes were first grown and odds are you’ll be told, “Ireland.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Potatoes were unknown to the European palate until the discovery of the New World. As the Conquistadors marched through South America pillaging ancient civilizations 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. Local myth tells that Sir Francis Drake brought the South American tubers back from an expedition in 1586 and gave some seedlings to his friend, Sir Walter Raleigh, who planted them at his estate in Youghall, County Cork.
The new vegetable quickly became a staple crop of Ireland’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, a good potato harvest meant that the average farm family had ready access to a nutritious diet.
For nearly 200 years, the ancient South American plant nourished Ireland’s poor. Then disaster struck. 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 in 1831 and Donegal in 1836, but this time the infestation was national. Again, in 1846 tragedy descended. 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 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 spuds.
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 potato plant’s leaves are toxic, the tubers are perfectly safe for consumption. Even so, most Americans chose to feed spuds to their pigs rather than serve them at the family dinner table. But the Irish knew a good thing when they bit into it, and when they began arriving by the boatload, the tide of American anti-potato-ism started to shift. Today, potatoes are planted in more than 1.3 million acres across 35 states, with an annual yield of nearly half a billion bushels. Considering that several dozen potatoes are contained in every bushel, the actual yearly U.S. spud count is in the trillions. While Ireland’s size naturally limits the total tonnage of its crop, the Irish are among the world’s heartiest potato-eaters with average annual consumption weighing in at a hefty 319 pounds per person.
Ireland and the United States are not the only countries where spuds have taken firm dietary root. In that 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, spuds pack an impressive nutritional punch. Add to that the success with which they are cultivated and it’s easy to see how the potato has become a vital food staple all over the world. In fact, the production of potatoes is growing faster than that of any food crop except for wheat.
Until the early 1990s, most potatoes were grown and consumed in Europe, North America, and countries of the former Soviet Union. Since then, there has been a dramatic increase in potato production and demand in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where output rose from less than 30 million tons in the early 1960s to more than 165 million tons in 2007. In 2005, for the first time, the developing world’s potato production exceeded that of the developed world. China is now the biggest potato producer.
Everywhere, people have discovered the wisdom of the time-honored Irish proverb: “Be eating one potato, peeling a second, have a third in your fist, and your eye on a fourth.” I’ve even planted a patch of spuds again. And when they’re harvested, I’ll be cooking them up in an international rainbow of styles, in addition, of course, to colcannon and champ. Sláinte! ♦
4 large potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 spring onions, minced
2 cloves garlic
1⁄2 inch piece fresh ginger, peeled
1 green chili, seeded and minced
2 tablespoons butter
2 large tomatoes, chopped
1 small cinnamon stick, broken
1⁄2 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 tablespoon garam masala
1 cardamom pod, opened
1⁄3 cup plain yoghurt
Boil the potatoes in water until just tender, then drain. Grind the spring onions, garlic, ginger, and chili to a paste and cook in the butter for 2 minutes. Add tomatoes, cinnamon, mustard seeds, garam masala, and cardamom and cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring. Add the yoghurt and cook to a thick sauce. Add the potatoes and simmer for 4-5 minutes. Makes 4 servings.
Hawaiian Potato Salad
4 large red potatoes, unpeeled and cubed
2 large carrots, peeled and cubed
1⁄2 medium red onion, minced
1 cup frozen peas, defrosted
1⁄2 pound lobster meat, shredded
1⁄4 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon lemon juice
salt & pepper
Boil the potatoes and carrots in water until just tender, then drain and combine with onion, peas, and lobster meat. Add mayonnaise, lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. Chill until ready to eat. Makes 4-6 servings.
NOTE: Any of the ingredients can be increased to taste.
Left-Over Baked Potato Pan Fry
2 left-over chilled baked potatoes
1 green bell pepper, seeded and cut in chunks
1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut in chunks
1 onion, sliced medium thick
2 tablespoons butter
salt & pepper
Cut baked potatoes into bite-size chunks – do not remove skins. Melt butter in a heavy frying pan and sauté peppers and onion until slightly wilted. Add potato chunks and continue frying, stirring frequently and scraping any browned bits into the mix, until potatoes are browned and vegetables are fully cooked. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve with fried or scrambled eggs. Makes 4 servings.
Mom’s Potatoes Au Gratin
2 large baking potatoes, peeled
salt & pepper
milk (approximately 2 cups)
Slice potatoes very thin. Layer potato slices in a small casserole, dusting each layer with flour, a sprinkle of salt and pepper, and small bits of butter. When casserole is full, pour in milk to cover. Bake in a 350ºF oven for approximately 45 minutes or until top is nicely browned and a knife inserted into the potatoes indicates they are cooked tender. Makes 4 servings.