Growing up in the Philadelphia area, Irish Potato Candy was one of our favorite pre-spring treats, making its appearance in local candy stores a few weeks before St. Patrick’s Day.
Although shaped to look like little bite-sized potatoes, Irish Potato Candy is not, in fact, made with potatoes. Instead, it is made from a rich coconut cream, vanilla and powdered sugar concoction, formed into small potato-shaped candies, then rolled in cinnamon to give it the look of a freshly-dug potato.
In addition to its appearance, the candy likely got its name as a nod to the important role potatoes played in the history of Ireland. In 18th century Europe, the potato was a staple crop due to the fact that it was hardy, provided good nutrition and was dense in calories. It was especially popular in Ireland because it thrived in the Irish soil. Many poor, rural Irish families relied on it as a major source of food. Because of its popularity there and in other parts of the country and Europe, its wide consumption put a strain on the supply. And then, in 1845, the potato crop was hit with a blight that lasted for approximately five years, causing the infamous “Irish Potato Famine”, also known as “The Great Hunger”. The blight-affected crop loss had a catastrophic effect on Ireland – approximately one million people died of starvation, and another one million emigrated to other regions, including the United States.
One city in which many Irish families settled when they arrived in their new country was Philadelphia. With the influx of Irish to the region, there grew a feeling of prejudice among those who already lived in the area, as they thought the new immigrants would steal their jobs. As a result, many Irish people started businesses of their own to make money and serve their new community. Some of those businesses still operate today.
While the exact origins of Irish Potato Candy is unknown, it’s believed that the coconut-y treat was the brainchild of an Irish immigrant turned Philadelphia candy maker. It’s roots are believed to be in Philadelphia because it has been mass-produced here longer than anywhere else and it is very difficult to find it outside of the Philly area.
There are differing theories about how the candy was first created – one belief was that its creator had leftover coconut cream and didn’t know what to do with it, so he rolled it into a small oblong shape, realized it looked like a potato, and then added cinnamon. Another theory is that the candy was created to satisfy people’s sweet tooth cravings between Valentine’s Day and Easter.
Since 1989, Philadelphia candy maker Oh Ryan’s has been making Irish Potato Candy. Each year between January and March, they ship more than 82,000 pounds of these sugary treats and hire a temporary staff to box and ship them. After March 15, they break down production and won’t make them again until next year.
The candies can be found in their familiar white and green boxes that start popping up in stores to remind you that St. Patrick’s Day is just around the corner. If you’re at the shore this weekend, chances are you can find them in the fudge and candy shops located in each of the towns.
If you’re looking for special treat to help celebrate St. Patty’s Day, you can always try your hand at making your own with this simple recipe.
4 T butter, softened
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 t vanilla
4 cups confectioner’s sugar
2 ½ cups sweetened coconut
2 T cinnamon
Beat butter, cream cheese and vanilla using an electric beater. Add sugar, one cup at a time, and continue beating. Stir in coconut until well blended. Refrigerate batter 15-20 minutes. Sprinkle cinnamon into a low dish or plate. Remove batter from refrigerator and roll into small 1-inch potato shapes, roll in cinnamon, and place on a parchment paper-lined sheet. Refrigerate for at least one hour.