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Joe's Neighborhood

The Irish Potato

5/31/2023

So… what about the potato in Ireland?

“You call them fries, we call them chips. What you call potato chips, we call crisps.”

Emmett Maher, the restaurant manager at Beshoffs Seagrill in Howth, Ireland, is gregarious, engaging and charming. He’s the guy you want to be seated next to at the pub. And he is very Irish.

I know, I know. A stereotype of someone as “Irish” is absolutely wrong and lazy, the forerunner to tribalism and the soon-to-follow labeling of a minority group as less than human — opening the door to genocide, crimes against humanity, and other unnamed war crimes — as I’m constantly told by my war-crimes prosecutor wife, who also happens to be Irish-American and an Irish citizen.

Trust me, I’ve learned my lesson.

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But Emmett is “Irish” — he is openly friendly, he leans in a little closer than my Dutch-American soul is used to, he has an entertaining story to tell on nearly any topic, and, like any good story told by an Irish person, especially including my wife, the story has multiple branches that might start out with potatoes and seamlessly go to President Biden’s visit to Ireland and end with American football. All of it making sense.

And let’s not forget the brogue.

“You can’t have the meal without crushed new potatoes with tarragon butter, you know?”

Emmett says this simple phrase with a mesmerizing lilt that dances up and down the musical scale and ends, as most Irish sentences end, with a question, which is really not a question but an opportunity for the speaker to take a breath before moving on.

But back to the potato:

“…you know? With your pan-seared hake with lemon garlic butter served with samphire on the side, food has really, really improved in the past 34 years because all the young Irish people have traveled globally and worked in the best destinations; the Irish know their food. I mean there are 34 million Irish Americans. That’s why Joe Biden was over. Joe is a very proud Irish American. Getting back to your potato, you know the famine, we were only allowed 20 acres of land to feed your own family, and when the type of the potato we grew failed, the English took everything else.”

Like Emmett, I do love a potato. My 96-year-old mom, raised on a farm near Stratford, Iowa, does not believe a meal really counts unless some form of potato is served — mashed, baked, fried — no matter. And I agree. But maybe that is because so many Iowans are rooted in the land of Ireland.

“In Iowa, the Irish were the second largest immigrant group, topped only by the Germans. They settled in large numbers in the Mississippi River towns like Dubuque and Davenport.” Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs (https://iowaculture.gov/history/education/educator-resources/primary-source-sets/irish-immigration-beyond-potato-famine).

And the potato, or the lack thereof, brought many of the Irish to the United States and then, ultimately, to Iowa. The Potato Famine of the 1840s was a nightmare. James Mahoney was there in 1847 and wrote of his observations:

“I started from Cork, by the mail (says our informant), for Skibbereen and saw little until we came to Clonakilty, where the coach stopped for breakfast; and here, for the first time, the horrors of the poverty became visible, in the vast number of famished poor, who flocked around the coach to beg alms: amongst them was a woman carrying in her arms the corpse of a fine child, and making the most distressing appeal to the passengers for aid to enable her to purchase a coffin and bury her dear little baby. This horrible spectacle induced me to make some inquiry about her, when I learned from the people of the hotel that each day brings dozens of such applicants into the town.” The Illustrated London News, Feb. 13, 1847.

And Iowa benefited from the millions of Irish who fled their homeland. They came to Iowa to work the land, to dig in the mines, to build the railroads.

And to foster a love of the potato.

But Ireland has moved on, according to Emmett:

“That day and age of potatoes three times a day is gone in Ireland. It is more of an evening staple and is dependent on the season, white potatoes, kerrs, pinks, maris pipers, then you have the organic ones as well. It depends on the time of the year and how dry the land is, you know what I mean, because the vast majority of the potato is made up of water and starch, so that is why we season them and add a lot of herbs and spices as well. There’s lots of ways of prepping that particular vegetable.”

Dead silence. But for just a wee moment. Then Emmett adds:

“What do you think about that Kansas City quarterback? You see, I love American football.”

And there you have everything there is to know about the Irish Potato. ♦

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.

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