Pass the potatoes, will ya?
Join me for a St. Patty's Day-inspired journey from Ireland to the Andes and back.
I love potatoes. I love them in all their shapes and sizes. I love a russet potato with its dark freckles that remind me of an old, sepia-tinted photo buried at the bottom of a pile of family photos. I love purple potatoes, the little guys and gals that might not spring to mind immediatley when you think of potatoes but nonetheless leave you hankering for, well, potatoes. And were I not a man spoken for, I very well might be hitched with a sweet potato (roasted in olive oil, salt, and pepper of course).
Why else do I love potatoes, you ask? (Because three reasons of why a guy loves potatoes isn’t already too much.) I love potatoes because they’ve traveled.
Yesterday was St. Patty’s Day. As you’re surely well aware by now, even if only from a thorough reading of last week’s entry, I enjoy exploring my cultural heritage through food. Ashkenazi cuisine has received the bulk of my attention because it’s the most concentrated part of me. Plus, considering how far and wide Ashkenazi Jews have traveled, we get to claim a lot of things as part of our culinary repertoire. Yiddishland isn’t restricted to pesky government borders. An Ashkenazi Jew could find something familiar from France to Russia. The hypothetical borders stretch even further when you drop the Ashkenazi and just talk about Jewish food.
Nonetheless, I’ve been interested in learning more about Irish cuisine. I’ve done my homework and know my Irish roots. Even if it does make up a comparatively small part of my DNA, it doesn’t make it any less a part of me. In others words, a lot of Irish men and woman had to survive through some pretty bleak chapters of history to make me possible. For that, I am grateful. Just as I am grateful that John J. Quilty and his wife Hanorah Quilty (daughter of Edward Kelly Kieley and Margaret Mary Boyle) immigrated to northern Ohio in the mid-19th century so that their daughter, Mary Quilty, could marry a Swiss immigrant by the name of Leon Baur.
By the way, here’s a photo a found a little over a year ago of one of my Irish ancestors. I’m not sure which one but Giant Jesus in the background was a clue.
To mark St. Patty’s Day, I decided to make something Irish. I knew I wanted to make soda bread, something I was properly intorduced to on a trip to Donegal. I was at a cooking demonstration led by Chef Brian McDermott and was woofing them down like puppy chow.
In order to narrow my recipe options down, I looked up a recipe by Jp McMahon, author of The Irish Cookbook––a book I have every intention of purchasing. The recipe shared by RTE includes a bit of treacle and Irish stout. “Even better!” I thought. I don’t cook with treacle much but I had some leftover from when I tried to make my own Salsa Lizano, the Costa Rican nectar I’ve been healthily addicted to since getting my first taste with a plate of Gallo Pinto almost seven years ago in Ciudad Colón.
“But what about the main?” I asked myself. And so I did what anyone else does in dire straights with limited time. I googled soomething along the lines of “Traditional Irish Recipes.” I blazed through the huge hocks of boiled meat. Nothing against them, but it wasn’t anything I was going to whip up on a Wednesday evening. The recipe for colcannon, Irish potatoes, caught my eye. But Melanie, ever so patient with my incessant need to cook the potentially complicated thing I want now and not tomorrow, nudged me toward something a tad healthier. That’s when an image of roasted fingerling potatoes with brussel sprouts caught my eye.
With a nod of approval, I went to the store to pick up some potatoes––resisting the urge to grab a couple of fresh yams in the process. (Coming home from the grocery store with an unrequested yam is a common occurence for me.) It took me all of a couple strokes of the knife to realize that this wasn’t a particularly Irish dish. Potatoes, brussel sprouts, and a lemond-flavored dressing. Can anyone really claim that?
“But… But… Potatoes!” I reasoned as I added carrots, onions, and broccoli to my plate of roasted vegetables. “Potatoes are Irish!”
Jaein, as my German neighbors would say. Yes and no.
Americans, Irish descendants or otherwise, tend to think of Ireland as the land of potatoes. We think this ironically because of the absence of potatoes––à la la the Great Potato Famine in the mid-19th century (around when my ancestors left, I can’t help but notice).
Now, I’m not sure how well-known what I’m about to say is. So I’m proceeding cautiously, sharing what might be stupidly obvious to others in case it might be enlightening to those who don’t know and are too afraid of being called stupid to ask. I’m sharing because as a person who’s written things on the internet, I’ve been called many things and can generally take it.
Potatoes are not indigenous to Ireland. They are, like the yam I treasure so dearly and many of our other favorite ingredients, indigenous to the Americas and were originally harvested by Native Americans. Regions of modern-day Peru and Bolivia seem to get credit for first growing potatoes as far back as 10,000 years ago. We're talking the Andes in South America. This is all to say that one could write a book hefty enough to crush a large man filled with the foods and ingredients we love for which indigenous communities don’t get the credit their owed.
My hasty googling leads me to a source that says it wasn't until the late 17th century that the potato became a staple of the Irish diet. That’s not all that long ago in the life of the potato. In actuality, the potato is a cherished staple of so many cuisines of the world. The Irish have no more claim to it than anyone else. They’re in India, Uganda, and the coldest corners of Scandanavia. For this reason, I admire potatoes. Like me, they enjoy traveling. A rather great deal, it seems.
In the end, St. Patty’s and my dalliance with Irish cuisine ended in confusion. If it’s not potatoes, what the hell is it? I mean, I remember eating some fresh seaweed off the coast of Donegal. Does that count?
I don’t have an answer. And I’m okay with that because I operate more comfortably in a state of not knowing. I’d rather learn than know in most cases. In this case, I look forward to learning more about Irish cuisine––the stuff that kept some part of me alive for centuries before I showed up.
In the meantime, I can at least rest comfortably knowing that the soda bread I made laced with O'Hara's Irish Stout is pretty fucking Irish.