I love potatoes, more so than most other starches. I think they’ve gotten a bad rap in modern times. When people talk about foods that are healthful, more often brown rice and other whole grains at the topic. It has become kind of a derogatory thing to say that someone is a meat and potatoes kind of person- it’s as if to say that that person is not health conscious or is bland. Well, now the traditional foods movement is telling us that meat isn’t as bad for us as we’ve been led to believe. And potatoes? Seems like not much is said for or against, in the traditional foods movement, that is. Others generally regard it as too much starch. But what a lot of people forget is that starch is something our bodies actually need. Besides providing starch, potatoes are rich in vitamin C, high in potassium and a great source of fiber. In fact, potatoes alone supply every vital nutrient except calcium, vitamin A and vitamin D.
Potatoes were first cultivated in South America between three and seven thousand years ago, but may have grown wild there as long as 13,000 years ago. Potatoes were introduced to European countries via Spanish conquistadors in the late 1500’s, but didn’t become a popular food until the late 1700’s.
Because of it’s late arrival on the scene, many people regard potatoes as a “non-traditional” food in the European diet. (Once I was criticized for bringing a potato dish to a Lughnasadh potluck.) This brings up the question- how long does a culture have to eat a food before it is considered a traditional food of that culture? I think if the people have no memory of what their culture’s diet was like before the introduction of the food in question, then that is the real indicator of whether or not it has become a traditional food. The impact of the food on the culture is what matters. If that impact is for the good, then it should stay a part of said tradition.
When potatoes did “catch on”, they helped relieve the effects of diseases like scurvy, tuberculosis, measles and dysentery. It prevented famines caused by grain-crop failure. The nutritious effects of eating potatoes caused higher birth rates and lower mortality rates, and thusly caused population booms wherever it was introduced.
Nowhere did the potato become a part of tradition more than in Ireland. It was well suited for the growing conditions there and was a very economical way to feed the family. The problem was, that often it was the only food. The potato famine taught us a thing or two about the dangers of monoculture crops. At the time of the potato famine, nearly half the Irish population was entirely dependant on potatoes- and just one or two varieties of them.
Despite the potato famine, the potato has retained it’s popularity in Irish cuisine and in the food traditions of the American South. The potato is probably responsible for keeping a lot of people alive during the Great Depression. I remember hearing my mom lament that during the depression, she often didn’t have anything to eat but “an old cold tader”.
Here are a few examples of delicious Celtic potato dishes:
1 pound cabbage
1 pound potatoes
1 cup milk
salt and pepper to taste
1 pinch ground mace
1/2 cup butter
In a large saucepan, boil cabbage until tender; remove and chop or blend well. Set aside and keep warm. Boil potatoes until tender. Remove from heat and drain. Chop leeks, green parts as well as white, and simmer them in just enough milk to cover, until they are soft. Season and mash potatoes well. Stir in cooked leeks and milk. Blend in the kale or cabbage and heat until the whole is a pale green fluff. Make a well in the center and pour in the melted butter. Mix well.
Pan Haggerty (British)
3 tablespoons butter or bacon drippings
4 potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
2 medium sweet onions, peeled and thinly sliced
1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
Salt and fresh ground black pepper, to taste
Melt butter or bacon drippings in a heavy frying pan over low heat. Remove from heat and layer potatoes, onions and cheese into skillet, starting with potatoes and ending with cheese. Season each layer of potato and onion with a bit of salt and black pepper.
Return skillet to burner, cover with lid, and reduce heat to medium low. Cook, covered, until potatoes and onions are crispy tender when tested with the tip of a sharp knife, about 25 to 30 minutes. Preheat broiler about 5 minutes before end of cooking time.
Uncover skillet and sprinkle with additional cheese, if desired. Transfer skillet to broiler, and cook until top is nicely browned and bubbly. Remove from broiler and let sit for a few minutes before serving from the skillet. Serve with a dollop of sour cream, if desired.
Pratie Oaten (Irish)
2 cups mashed potatoes
1 cup uncooked oatmeal
½ cup melted butter or bacon grease
Salt to taste
Work enough of the oatmeal into the mashed potatoes to form a soft dough. Add salt to taste and enough butter or bacon grease to bind it together. Roll dough to 1-inch thickness and cut out with a 3-inch round biscuit cutter. Fry in grease or butter until light brown on both sides, about 2 minutes per side. Serve warm. Makes 4 servings
1 pound potatoes
1 pound turnips
2 oz. butter
salt and freshly ground pepper
4 tablespoons cream
Boil the peeled potatoes and turnips in separate saucepans – this is essential to obtain the authentic flavor. Drain and mash each vegetable separately with 1oz. butter. Combine the two purées, season and beat thoroughly until you have a light soft mixture. Pile it up into a heated dish, stick the handle of a wooden spoon or a finger into the purée to make 6 or 8 holes. Fill each with cream and serve hot. Serves: 4
Stoved Tatties (Scottish)
5 potatoes, peeled and sliced thin
Butter or lard for frying
Salt and pepper to taste
Fry the potatoes in a heavy saucepan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cover and cook on low heat for about ½ hour or until potatoes are tender. Serve with butter and sour cream.
1 bunch green onions, chopped (or fresh peas)
1 ½ cups milk
3 ½ cups hot mashed potatoes
4 tablespoons butter, melted
Salt and pepper to taste
Cook the onions in the milk. Drain, reserving the milk. Add onions to mashed potatoes. Beat together with enough milk to make potatoes creamy. Season to taste. Put into a deep warmed serving dish. Make a well in the center, and pour hot melted butter into it.