My mom cooked certain things that I'll always remember. It was tri-color pasta salad for summer cookouts, banana bread (baked with overripe bananas for moisture's sake) as a go-to dessert, pineapple stuffing for Christmas, and Irish potatoes for St. Patrick's Day.
Irish potatoes are not potatoes at all. And they have nothing to do with Ireland. But they have everything to do with Philadelphia and food that tastes good. My mom's recipe makes close to 100 marble-sized, potato-shaped, coconut-creamy confections that she used to distribute to the workplaces and schools of everyone in my family.
We started making them every March after my sister's Glading Rainbow nursery school class made them one day. She came home with the recipe on a plain white sheet of computer paper along with a few samples of the cinnamon-coated sweet.
WHAT'S IRISH GOT TO DO WITH IT?
My last name is not a shortened version of "O'Ryder" or "McRyder." My family is only about half-Irish, but every St. Patrick's Day in my youth, my mom donned a smiling leprechaun pin paired with shamrock ankle socks. It sent my trying-to-stay-cool teenage self into a spiral of shame which has, by now, fortunately morphed into an endearing memory. My dad, who typically doesn't express himself festively, sported a green tie.
But don't let that fool you into thinking we're particularly connected to our heritage. Irish potatoes are cultural, but in the way sitting on your stoop is cultural, not in the way an Italian family's legendary gravy recipe is cultural. There was no gravy recipe for us (even though my mom is half-Italian). No, the making and giving of Irish potatoes on St. Patrick's Day is an adopted tradition all our own.
When we moved from Northeast Philadelphia to Quakertown in Bucks County in the mid '90s, we were out of place. We didn't know people who understood our St. Patrick's Day custom.
But every year, in the days leading up to St. Patrick's Day, our fridge shelves were filled with close to eight dozen plastic, green-lidded containers from the dollar store. Handfuls of misshapen dessert balls would be smashed together in each one, ready to be distributed to people who were sometimes apprehensive about what the heck they were.
CROSSING THE BORDERS OF EMBARRASSMENT
Irish potatoes have mainly stayed local to Philly. But it took my family's move to the suburbs to make me realize that. When it was my turn to bring a snack to my church youth group during the month of March, years after my family moved to Quakertown, I brought Irish potatoes.
My mom gave me specific instructions: "You have to tell people it has coconut, so if they don't like coconut, they don't have to eat it."
"We thought you brought, like, potato-potatoes," said my youth leader once I explained what Irish potatoes really are. The group laughed at the thought of a starchy side dish in place of the sweet snack.
I wasn't all that aware that my Philadelphia-born family were the only people who knew about Irish potatoes. Instead of being proud to share them with my suburban community, I was a little embarrassed.
Other peoples' snack trays were artful collections of perfectly shaped cookies, or bowls of Tortilla chips and salsa. I had a handful of brown, turd-shaped nuggets.
Before I left for youth group that night, I tried to beef up my snack game by taking more Irish potatoes out of the other containers and adding them to mine. But that only made it look like a bigger pile of poop balls.
Thankfully, they were usually pretty well received. And they were a conversation starter. They're incredibly rich and creamy. They're served in small doses for a reason. The two-bite pieces are genuinely satisfying.
WHERE DO THESE THINGS COME FROM, ANYWAY?
Though I'm an enthusiastic advocate for homemade-only Irish potatoes, particularly made from my mom's recipe (details below), there is always Oh Ryan's for the less-ambitious among us. Based in Linwood, Oh Ryan's makes and distributes over 2 million Irish potatoes every January through March.
The owner, David Lapparelli — an Italian! — refuses to sell them out of season, and I support this standard. Irish potatoes are for St. Patrick's Day only. I asked Lapparelli, who named the product after his son Ryan, if he knew how Irish potatoes originated.
"I think an old-time candy maker was trying to figure out what to sell between Valentine's Day and Easter. He must have dropped a coconut cream egg in cinnamon, realized it looked like a potato and thought, I bet I could sell it," he told me.
Factual or not, it's a great story for a Philadelphian — you roll with what comes your way, and it starts to mean something with time. In the absence of traditional customs, you create your own with the help of your city that is rarely at a loss for charming originality and indulgent, ridiculous treats that are worth sharing with new neighbors. True sweetness is in that block-party, walk-home-for-lunch, Northeast-Philly neighborhood hospitality, anyway.
My family still has that plain white paper with our first Irish potato recipe. The cursive ink is practically invisible now. Recently, I transcribed it so I could bring it back to New York City, where I live, and share it with my coworkers.
At first, I considered making healthy substitutions for the cream and sugar. Then I thought about cutting the quantity in half. In the end, I chose to keep everything the same — especially the quantity. The beauty of the tradition is that the potatoes are made to give away to a lot of people. And the ingredients matter, because it's important to me for people to experience a little bit of where I came from.
THE IRISH POTATO RECIPE
2 lbs. confectioners sugar (10x)
¼ lb. butter (one stick melted)
7 oz. bag of flaked coconut
14 oz. can of condensed milk
½ tsp vanilla extract
Cinnamon (for coating)
Step one: Mix
Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl. The mixture forms a thick, icing-like consistency.
Step two: Roll
Roll marble-sized balls with your hands. The smaller you make your potatoes, the more you will have.
Step three: Coat
Fill a cereal bowl a little less than halfway with pure cinnamon. Then roll your ball around, coating it entirely in brown.
Step four: Finish and add a special touch
As you finish rolling, you can lay out the potatoes on parchment paper or paper plates, or gather them inside the containers you are putting them in. If you are distributing them, you can try putting some inside plastic baggies and tying them with green ribbon or lining your containers with festive napkins.
Keep refrigerated until ready to serve. They are safe to sit out for a little while, but not for too long.