In my adopted South Jersey neighborhood near Philly (I’m a shore kid), you can watch the seasons change with the porch decorations. There is Christmas and July Fourth, when a stranger will place a flag in your yard under the cover of night. There’s Easter and its shades of warring pastel, bunnies and crosses peering out from windows up and down the block.
But around here, the smaller holidays call for decoration, too. Come February, homes are clad in red for Valentine’s Day, more so than I’ve ever seen. (This isn’t an easy place to spend the Hallmark holiday alone, it would seem.) Then, with spring yet a horizon daydream, red gives way to a riot of green:
“Happy St. Patrick’s Day, friends!”
Leprechauns dance atop shimmery shamrocks. Pots of (plastic) gold are bedecked in twinkling lights. You nearly expect fiddlers to fête you on a winter’s-end walk.
Suffice it to say that folks take St. Patrick’s Day seriously around here, which isn’t hard to understand. According to the 2014 census, more than 14 percent of Philadelphians claim Irish ancestry. In other words, this isn’t an “Irish for the day” kind of neighborhood. Case in point: if you’re not there in person, you’ll find the Philly St. Patrick’s Day parade playing at your local pub. On tiny TV screens, even tinier Irish lasses kick their way on toe-tip through Center City, curls a-bounce.
Whether you’re Irish by ancestry or aspiration, it’s hard not to get swept up in the excitement—and last St. Patrick’s Day, my holiday started with a gift. With a knock and a smile, my Irish-American neighbor, Ellen Hannan, bestowed me with the most Philly of St. Paddy’s treats: a box of Irish potatoes.
In part, I believe, it was to correct an error that I had made a few days prior. When she had asked me if I liked them as we chatted on the porch, I’d stammered something about enjoying potatoes with my corned beef. “It’s lovely how they pick up the savory flavors,” I’d trailed off. Ellen smiled.
This, it turns out, was not what she had meant. Around here, Irish potatoes are:
Not Irish. (They were invented stateside.)
Not made of potatoes. (They’re a coconut candy.)
Required for a proper St. Paddy’s Day celebration.
Photo by Jenn Hall
As such, bakeries and candy shops in the region are packed with them come March. Sugar and vanilla perfume the air, a sign (somehow) of Irish cheer. As for the name? In a confectionary punch line of sorts, the candies are rolled in cinnamon until they achieve a decidedly potato-esque patina, oddly festive. (This should be clear by now, but pairing them with brined brisket is not recommended.)
Though their origins are obscured, Irish potatoes date back at least a century. Most believe that they originated in Philadelphia, where candy-making traditions run deep. On the mass-produced side of the tradition, heaping stacks of Oh Ryan’s-brand candies appear this time of year at area grocery stores, shipped from a factory in Linwood, Penn. The company claims to pump out some 80,000 pounds of them annually.
A better route to “sweet” potato bliss is to head to a local bakery or candy shop, where the would-be potatoes are fashioned with extra love … or is it luck? At Aunt Charlotte’s Candies in Merchantville, N.J., third-generation co-owner Randy Oakford says that the confection has been in seasonal rotation ever since her grandfather opened shop in 1920. Theirs is made with coconut cream. “I’m not sure about the legitimate history of Irish potatoes,” Oakford muses. “The idea is that it has something to do with the Irish potato famine. But I do know that we’ve been carrying them since we started.”
Photo by Jenn Hall
In the run-up to St. Patrick’s Day, production at the old-fashioned confectioner reaches a green-hued fever pitch, led by Oakford’s nephew and fourth-generation candy maker, Ryan Trost. Just like his great-grandfather, he’s in the business of earning smiles. Accordingly, families have been returning for the wee treats for generations. “People come in all of the time and say ‘I used to come in here with my mom when I was a kid, and now I have my own kids.’ It’s a Philly thing—all of the candy people around here make them.”
Oakford offers me one to try. “They’re very sweet,” she cautions. But there’s no need for concern. The candy is springy and delicious.
For me, however, the sweetest Irish potatoes of all are those bestowed by my lovely Irish-American neighbor. For years, Ellen says, another woman on the block had distributed them from house-to-house, serving as the de facto spirit of St. Paddy’s Day in these parts. When she moved, the candies were missed, and Ellen took up the charge.
Unlike their store-made counterparts, homemade Irish potatoes involve a mixture of butter and cream cheese, which is sweetened and then flavored with coconut and vanilla. They’re simple enough to make, Ellen says—but take her advice and set the butter and cream cheese out to soften for a few hours before you start. (Otherwise, you’re in for a workout.)
Then, when you’re ready to make your mix (ideally with a standing mixer), aim to get it as smooth as possible. Don’t get fussy about it, however. “This is not an exact science,” Ellen says.
Photo by Jenn Hall
That being said, she has her method. Once the mix is made and then chilled until it firms, Ellen scoops out a wee amount with her favorite baby spoon and drops it into an open palm. She then rolls and shapes it as you would a meatball, leaving irregularities. (Potatoes aren’t perfect orbs.) Finally, she drops it gently into a high-sided bowl of cinnamon.
With just a few whooshes and whirls, the job is complete.
Properly dusted, the candies set in the refrigerator overnight, during which time they darken and grow ever more potato-like in appearance. Come morning, you’ll have the sweetest spud this side of Ireland. Just be sure to make extra for your neighbors. It wouldn’t be a Philly-style St. Patrick’s Day without them.
Jenn Hall writes about food and culture from a Jersey-side suburb of Philly. Follow along at jennhallwrites.com and on Instagram & Twitter @jennsarahhall.