WE CELEBRATE THE POTATO!
We must remember IRELAND, The Irish Famine and
SING THE VIRTUES OF THE POTATO!
In Ireland there was a dependence of a large section of the population on the potato crop. The famine was the result of mono-cropping, (Peruvians have over 100 varieties of spud, many not vulnerable to the same mold.) The crop failure was just the start. NEXT was the Protestant/ British attitude toward 'Micks' and a totally insufficient and ineffective relief or Soup Kitchen for stopping the outbreak of starvation and disease. The famine was the most tragic and significant event in Irish history and one of the worst human disasters of the nineteenth century. Ireland depended on the potato as a staple crop after 1800. Population increased rapidly and reached eight million by 1841, two-thirds of them depended on what was growing outside. The Irish depended on the potato
and the failure of the potato crop in 1845 was disastrous. The crop failed again in 1846, 1847, and 1848. By 1851, the population of Ireland had been reduced by more than two million due to starvation, disease, and on the glad side, emigration to Britain and North America.
Potato blight was not unknown in Ireland before 1845. There was a famine in
1741 that killed one quarter of a million people. Ireland struggled through
crop failures and subsistence crisis throughout the nineteenth century
including 14 partial and complete famines between 1816 and 1842. From 1845
until 1848 the people suffered from bad harvests one after the other. The
consistency of famine was enough to reduce the population of Ireland by
about two-and-a-half million. The wet summers of the Irish climate helped
spread the blight. The harvest failed four years in a row and the peasants
had no reserve to fall back on (Taylor, 1962). The famine together with the
accompanying plaques became known as the Great Famine to the British, The
Great Hunger to the Irish middle class, and the Great Starvation to the
The famine began in 1845 with the blighting and failures of the potato
crop, the peoples' chief means of sustenance. The potato blight fungus,
phytophthora infestans, attacked potatoes making them rotten and inedible.
After the blight struck in 1845, more potatoes than ever were planted that
spring because people did not expect the blight to strike again. There was
a worse failure in 1846 and even worse in 1847, when suffering reached its
climax (MacManus, 1944). This year is sometimes referred to as Black '47.
There was also famine in Scotland and Belgium but with nothing like the
The filth and dilapidation revolted travelers to Ireland. The streets were
swarming with repulsive beggars fawning and wheedling in expectation of a
penny, abusive and snarling if refused. The villages were half-ruined and
the Irish peasants were half-naked or clad in dirty stinking rags. The most
miserable of English paupers was better fed and clothed than the most
prosperous of Irish laborers. Ireland was two nations, one of poor and one
of rich. According to Costigan (1969), "There was nothing between master
and slave, nothing between all the luxuries of existence and the last
degree of human wretchedness"
Ireland before the Famine
Families who relied on the potato to keep them alive were left with
nothing. Families who grew grain or barley had to either sell the food to
pay the rent or eat the food and be evicted. The average man before the
famine ate between seven and fifteen pounds of potato a day. Children even
took potatoes to school for lunch. People would leave one thumbnail grow
long because without knives, that was the best way to peel the potato. When
the potatoes were boiled the pot was turned into a basket outside the door
and the water drained off. They would put the basket in the middle of the
floor and all sit around and eat. On a three legged stool nearby they would
leave a bowl of salted water or just salt. They dipped the potatoes in the
bowl before they ate. This was called "dip at the stool." Drinks of
buttermilk or skim milk would complete their meal.
Several different dishes could be made from the potato such as boxty bread,
champ and fleatair. Among the peasant class, married men dressed better
than women and their clothes were provided for first. Women had equal input
in the economy of the household. Women did the daily work of cooking,
cleaning, and rearing the children. Women of all were responsible for the
fowl, pig, and making of butter. On market day better off farming girls and
women would drive the horse or donkey to town with products of butter,
eggs, and fowl and return in the evening with the goods they bought.
Peasant families ate potatoes for every meal, except during the summer when
their stock was exhausted. Most of the beggars were wives and children of
able-bodied laborers. The husbands themselves rarely begged. In the very
poor laboring families, while the husbands went to the east of the country
or to England to find work at the harvest, women and children supported
themselves by begging. They would travel away from their localities for
prides sake. The greatest numbers of beggars were found during the summer
months when there was little work to be found for the laboring men, who
rarely begged. The population of Ireland had greatly increased in the years
preceding the famine and this helped lead to a catastrophe (Taylor, 1962).
Two-thirds of the population of 8.25 million Irish lived off the land.
Farming and Subsistence
After 1815 there was intense population growth that caused increased
pressure on land and peasants holdings being divided into smaller and
smaller lots (Costigan, 1969). With increased population there came
increased competition for land. With a population of eight million land was
scarce. Many families had to survive on half and acre of land and the only
way to do this was to grow potatoes to feed themselves through the winter
months. Only one-third of these families lived on farms of over fifteen
acres in which a surplus could be produced. Half the rural population was
landless laborers and their families. The Irish famine from 1845 to 1849
was the most severe famine in the history of European agriculture.
Dependence of huge sections of the population on subsistence agriculture
led to collapse when the blight appeared.
The Industrial Revolution never reached most of Ireland. There was little
opportunity for employment outside of agriculture and agriculture did not
pay well. The Irish diet before the introduction of the potato was based on
cattle that were produced in vast numbers. Beef, milk, butter, and
buttermilk were the staples of their diet. The potato was introduced in the
late 1500's and the new crop thrived in the damp Irish climate. The
importance of the potato grew in the 1600's and 1700's. In the late 1700's
population began to explode, especially among the peasant class. Population
of the lower class became more and more dependent on the potato. The Irish
subsided on the potato called the "lumper". The "lumper" was the lowest
member of the potato family. Some peasants before the famine grew plots of
oats and most fattened a pig, but the pig and oats went to pay for the
small plots of land they rented to grow their potatoes on. Ireland was
heavily dependent on agriculture (Foster, 1988). After the famine and a
departure of many Irish there was a smaller population and this allowed the
remaining Irish more room and landholdings of families could increase.
In March of 1847, prices rose almost too high to purchase. The hardest hit
were landless laborers who rented small plots of land to feed themselves
and their families. When their own crops failed, they had to buy food with
money they did not have and prices continued to rise. The poor did not
readily accept their fate, food riots broke out and secret societies
increased their activity. There was much crime and disobedience to the
laws. They were dealt with by repression and violence if necessary. Before
the famine, during the 1840's, it was common for laborers to hunger in the
late summer before harvest. Before the famine housing and clothing were
poor, and mud huts and rags were the norm for most of the Irish peasants
The unemployed roamed the country, begging and sleeping in ditches. An army
occupation of fifty thousand was throughout country, backed up in every
town and village by an armed constabulary (Costigan, 1969). The manner in
which the Irish were clothed was a sure indication of great poverty and
unavoidable sufferings. Some Irish thought that the potato would be
permanently destroyed. In September of 1846 there was much alarm and
apprehension. There were epidemics in crime as the people stole to survive.
Ireland in 1849 was a land of ruins, beggars and silence.
Housing and Landlords
Cottages were crumbling in ruins and abandoned by their tenants who had
emigrated. Before famine struck, nearly half of all rural families lived in
windowless, one room, mud cabins. Many landlords were harsh. Some landlords
were nearly as impoverished as their tenants, but it is not recorded that
any landlords died of starvation. Irish landlords were much like "slave
holders with white slaves." (Taylor, 1962, p. 174). Unable to pay rent to
the landlord, thousands of starving peasants were thrown out. Thousands
more were threatened to be thrown out of their home to perish on the
roadside. A few landlords were even shot.
Death and Disease
People died of starvation in their houses, in the fields, and on the roads.
Disease became epidemic. More died of disease than of starvation. About one
million perished. Most were deliberated from long starvation when they
finally succumbed to typhus, cholera, dysentery, and scurvy. There was even
an increase in the number of certified lunatics in Ireland (Costigan,
1969). During the worst of the famine, peasants were perishing in the night
and their bodies would be found in the morning partially devoured by rats.
At the worst in 1847 the uncoffined dead were being buried in trenches.
Starving dogs waited for the moment when the graves were unguarded. One
million emigrated and many were dying from fever along the journey.
The population had fallen by one-fifth to 6.5 million by the end of the
famine. The hardest hit regions were the south and the west (Gibbon, 1975).
Cholera hit in 1849 and killed many of the famine survivors.
The British Government
The right of the rich few to sell food to the highest bidder came before
the majority needs for food for survival, and the right to collect rent
came before the right to housing. British government supported that by the
Coercion Act enabling it to declare martial law and a curfew. Soldiers and
constabulary were used to protect food for exporting from the starving. The
British blamed Ireland for continuing to plant the potato after the first
time the blight appeared. At the height of the famine the full system of
English poor laws were extended to Ireland. There was food available to
save the Irish people from starvation, but it was denied them. Ireland was
at this time part of the United Kingdom, the wealthiest country in the
world. The British government had insisted on undertaking responsibility
for Ireland, but when crisis arose they ran away from it. The British were
handling human beings as ciphers on a bit of paper. They looked up the
answers in economic textbooks without ever setting eyes on the living
skeletons of the Irish people. They excused the Irish for being hit by the
blight once, but they condemned them for persisting in planting the
potatoes after the blight appeared again. Most of all the British
government feared that the entire social structure would topple down if men
and women were once given food they could not pay for. It was easy for the
British to believe the blight was the fault of the Irish because blight
occurred in England too, but it was not nearly as severe. The first step
they took to relieve the situation was to send over a shipload of
scientists to study the cause of the potato failure. Money could not be
used for seeding the lands, reclaiming the millions of acres of bog, or
building railways because that would be giving the Irish farmer an unfair
advantage over the English (MacManus, 1944).
The government was accused of genocide by the Irish and even of instigating
an "Irish holocaust". The Irish were accused of marrying too early and
having too many children. The efforts of the British government for relief
of the Irish were half-hearted and inadequate. They set up relief schemes
and pubic works to avoid mass revolt (Costigan, 1969).
Relief and Public Works
Many months passed in the beginning of the famine and many thousands died
before the government would admit the necessity of direst financial help.
When help was given it was free soup kitchens and public works that were
designated to be useless so that they would not interfere with private
enterprise. By 1847 half the population was being fed at public expense.
(Beckett, 1966). With the exception of a few notable cases, the rich felt
their only obligation was to make a donation to charity. After, they were
free to party and hunt as they had always done. The government pushed much
of the responsibility to feed the poor on the shoulders of charities.
Religious groups and charities throughout Ireland set up soup kitchens. In
some places soup was so watery that doctors would advise people not to eat
it. Relief operations made very little impression on starvation,
contributed to the spread of disease, and enriched many engaged in trading.
The British set up emergency food deposits in 1846, but forbade them to be
opened while food could still be obtained from private dealers (Gibbon,
1975). The British spent seven million pounds in direct relief, eight
million in the purchase of maize from America, and private charity raised
another million pounds. By the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1847, no peasant
with a holding of one-quarter an acre or more was eligible for relief. This
resulted in tens of thousands of farmers parting with their land.
Hundreds of thousands of men worked construction roads in places there was
no need for them (Costigan, 1969). Impoverished peasants were asked to
build roads that went from nowhere to nowhere for such low wages that they
could hardly buy enough food to live on. Public works were not available
for many people. In May of 1846, 400,000 people applied for 13,000 jobs.
They were building roads where nobody ever traveled, starting anywhere and
ending nowhere. Bridges were built where no rivers flowed and piers were
built where no ships' sails were ever seen. Some of them can still be found
today (MacManus, 1944). In March of 1847 the public works were abandoned.
Exporting in Ireland
Throughout the famine, food was being exported that could have kept people
alive. Landlords continued to make cash through the export of foodstuff
such as grain, as well as wool and flax. While thousands were dying of
hunger Irish grain was being exported to England. An average of two million
quarters of wheat was annually shipped out of Ireland, an amount that could
have sufficiently fed the whole population. During the famine years, Irish
agriculture continued to yield profit for Irish landlords and English
merchants (Costigan, 1969). Shiploads of Indian corn were imported to
Ireland from America. A ship with relief corn from America sailing into an
Irish harbor would meet several ships with Irish foodstuff sailing out.
More corn was sent out in a month than came in, in a year.
Irish emigrants to America were now sending money back home by drafts and
cash. Landlords began to issue notices to their tenants to appear in court
for non-payment of rent. Terror of being placed in prison caused families
to flee their small holdings and emigrate to England if they did not have
money for the fare to America. In January, the government introduced soup
kitchens, although they were already in operation by charities. The soup is
given free to the infirm, poor widows, orphans, and children. By the end of
January, much food was being distributed, but it did not meet the demand.
Crowds waited for hours outside the distribution centers and fights often
broke out. Famine epidemics began to spread of typhus, and scurvy. In
February families were being found dead in cabins, their bodies being eaten
by starving cats and dogs. The ships coming to America were overcrowded and
under stocked with provisions. By June the streets of Montreal, Canada are
filled with impoverished emigrants from Ireland. Many had typhus. There was
discontent in England at the amount of their tax money being spent in
Ireland. The crop in September was very good, but only one-fifth of the
normal potato crop has been planted due to a shortage of seed.
More than one million Irish fled their country. More Catholic peasantry of
Ireland stayed and clung tenaciously to their own hearths and hovels than
any other group. No matter what their degree of misery they had shown
little disposition to leave their native land. Fearing the effects of the
absorption of their religious beliefs into the Anglo-Saxon and Protestant
world of America the Catholic Church had also discouraged emigration to the
New World (Costigan, 1969). Nearly two million Irish died of starvation and
fever within five years. Another million fled bearing disease to Liverpool
and the New World. Most who emigrated did so at their own expense and sent
money back to their relatives to follow them. Some went to English
manufacturing towns or London (Taylor, 1962). Thousands of fleeing Irish
carried their fever aboard on ships or developed fever on the voyage. Many
never saw the land and died on the ship or died when they reached their
destination (MacManus, 1944).
Hundreds were rushing from their homes and country, not with the idea of
making fortunes in other lands, but to fly from a scene of suffering and
death. Within five years, through death and emigration Ireland lost more
than two million people. By 1900, two-and-a-half million more left Irish
ports to cross the Atlantic. When they emigrated they had a period of
intense homesickness, loneliness, and humiliation. Emigrants were generally
employed as menials. Boys and men did the hardest manual labor and girls
and women did domestic services. They gradually recoiled themselves to life
abroad and found opportunities for success that in their own homeland they
had never known. Henry Ford was the grandson on one such emigrant from
Ireland. The great grandfather of President Kennedy was another emigrant.
Some emigrants found in America, Australia, and Canada only a grave, but
other rose to positions of power and influence. Some large-scale emigration
predated the famine in the 1840's, but the peak rate of emigration was in
1851 at 250,000 Irish (Foster, 1988).
Effect of the Famine on Language
The famine has an effect on the Gaelic language and tradition because many
of the poorer families who died or left spoke only Gaelic while the rich
and political leaders were very familiar with English. Losses by famine
were greatest among the cotter class and in most Gaelic parts of the
country. Many months passed in the beginning of the famine and many
thousands died before the government would admit the necessity of direst
financial help. When help was given it was free soup kitchens and public
works that were designated to be useless so that they would not interfere
with private enterprise. By 1847 half the population was being fed at
public expense (Costigan, 1969). Very few counties were left with a large
Irish speaking population, a language that dominated Ireland for two
thousand years. English became the language of patriotism, politics,
religion, and the fireside among the Irish (Curtis, 1950).
The Irish famine was the result of successive failures of the potato crop,
the staple diet of more than half the population of Ireland. Most people
depended almost exclusively on the potato. In many places the only food was
the potato, the only drink was water, the cabins were seldom protection
against weather, a bed or blanket was a luxury, in most places a pig and a
manure heap were the only possessions. Since the crop needed little labor
to harvest and a small acreage furnished a large yield, it was ideally
suited to the poor economy of Ireland in the seventeenth century. By 1700
it had largely replaced grain as the staple food of the majority of the
people. The potato originated from America; so did the blight that ruined
it in 1845. In many places the promise of an abundant yield was converted
overnight into the certainty of ruin. Leaves curled up and shriveled, black
spots appeared on the potatoes, and a stench lay over the ground. The Irish
famine was the worst disaster in Europe in the nineteenth century. During
the nineteenth century throughout the western world population was rapidly
increasing, in Ireland it was halved.
SO THIS WEEK we will be looking at POTATO RECIPES as in honor of those
fallen souls of Eire, we should feast on potatoes.
So many recipes we may have to feast every day this coming week
The Best Latkes We Have Ever Eaten
If you have ever eaten a latke (potato pancake) in a restaurant and then
tried to replicate the experience at home, you will know what I mean when I
say that disappointment is part of the process. I don’t care how good your
recipe is, your latkes probably don’t turn out like the tall, frisbee-sized
discs at the 2nd Avenue Deli, Barney Greengrass, or Katz’s. Generally, the
home version of the latke game show involves flat, slippery, and brown
rounds that would be better used as coasters than as dinner. So why bother?
Many people don’t. This time of year, you’ll see huge
stacks of potato pancakes at Eli’s and Zabars–towers taller than a child–
and people who have suffered through bad latkes in years past are willing
to shell out $2-$4 per latke to avoid repeating the experience. Not that
there’s anything wrong with purchasing your latkes from a deli or a
restaurant, but we’ll let you in on a secret: with a little help, you can
make better latkes at home. Seriously. Better. And they’re easy too.
all the recipes we’ve created and all the time we’ve spent cooking this
past year, we are probably most proud of this one: not only are these
latkes sublimely delicious, they are better than anything we’ve ever eaten
in a Jewish deli in New York. And given the quality of the latkes at every
place I’ve mentioned in this post, that is saying something. Our secret (no
longer a secret) isn’t a new ingredient but a slight departure from
traditional latke methodologies: we take half the potatoes used and boil
and mash them before adding them to the shredded potatoes. You can get away
with using 1/3 of the potatoes, if you prefer lots of shreds, but frankly,
the latkes that we have made with half-and-half combinations of potatoes
have been very light and crisp. Yes, I did just use the word “light” to
describe a latke, and I’m not lying.
The pre-mashing of half the potatoes creates a natural matrix for very
thick latkes and allows you to add a little architectural height to the
pancake without adding bulk. When only shredded potatoes are used, they
tend to spread, even with a substantial amount of egg and matzoh meal to
bind the pancakes together. In this recipe, the height of the patty at the
beginning is the height of the patty at the end– you are limited only by
your imagination and supply of vegetable or corn oil!
Just a few hints before you begin: (1) Be sure to use at least 1/4-1/2? of
oil and heat this oil to somewhere between 250°F and 320°F. This is a lower
temperature than you’d normally use for deep frying, and that’s because
you’re not really deep frying the latkes; you’re shallow frying them. If
the oil is too hot, the latkes won’t cook properly in the middle. Our rule
of thumb is that if the latkes are very slightly browned after 2 minutes,
the oil is probably at the right temperature. You don’t even need a frying
thermometer. (2) Don’t skimp on the squeezing! Wet shredded potatoes make
slimy latkes. There’s a picture of me squeezing the shredded potatoes (not
the mashed ones) on our Flickr page, if you want to see what this looks
like. (3) Use about 1 medium onion for every three potatoes or one large
onion for four potatoes. If you like more oniony latkes, you can increase
the onions by as much as half, as long as you double the amount of matzoh
meal (or flour) you use. (4) Eat the latkes immediately after you make
them, if you can. This is when they are best. If you really need to store
them, freeze them, even if you’re only keeping them for a day or so–
refrigerating latkes makes them soggy and rubbery, but freezing preserves
some of the original texture. If you do need to reheat them, do so in a
toaster oven or regular oven and slowly increase the temperature until the
latkes re-crisp. But honestly, you’re fooling yourself if you think there
are going to be any left to save. Just be ready with a fork and the sour
Mind-blowing Homemade Latkes
2 3/4 lbs. (1.25 kg.) white potatoes (about 4 medium potatoes)
1 large onion
2 eggs, well beaten
1.5 Tablespoons matzoh meal (or flour)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Peel and cut half of the potatoes into one-inch chunks. Boil in salted
water until tender (about 20 minutes). Drain and pass through a food mill
(or process smooth in a food processor). Sprinkle matzoh meal on top of
this. In a large bowl, shred one large onion. Then shred both peeled
potatoes into the onion, mixing together the potato shreds with the onion
to keep the potato threads from discoloring. Squeeze as much liquid as
possible from onion-potato mixture by placing the shredded vegetables into
a piece of cheesecloth and twisting until no more liquid can be extracted.
Return to large, dry bowl and add egg, pepper, and salt. Add the
puréed/milled potatoes to the shredded potatoes and combine thoroughly.
Form into palm-sized patties that are about 1/2 to 3/4 inches high. Fry
these patties in 1/4 to 1/2 inches of corn oil (do NOT use olive oil) . The
patties will need to cook for about 5 minutes on the first side, so if they
do more than go slightly brown after a minute or two, your oil is too hot.
Flip after five minutes with a spatula and fork and cook on the other side
for about 2 minutes, or until dark golden brown. Drain thoroughly on paper
towels. Serve with applesauce, salt, and sour cream. Makes approximately 10
Louisiana Stuffed Potatoes
6 russet potatoes
1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 medium red onion, chopped
1/3 cup chopped yellow bell pepper
1 rib celery, chopped
6 ounces Cremini mushrooms, sliced
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped black olives
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons nutritional yeast
3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
hot pepper sauce to taste
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Bake potatoes on middle rack for 1 hour, or
until fork-tender. Set aside to cool.
Heat oil in a 10-inch frying pan and saut? the garlic, onion, bell pepper
and celery for 3 minutes. Add mushrooms, tomatoes and olives. Cook 5
minutes, stirring frequently. Add remaining ingredients and lower heat to simmer
until ready to assemble. Cut an X into each potato when cool enough to
handle and press sides gently to open. Scoop out 1 tablespoon of pulp from each potato
and add to stuffing mixture. Spoon stuffing into and over potatoes.
Makes 6 servings.
GROWING SPUDS WITHOUT ANY COST
<=== BACK TO THE FRUGAL FOOD INDEX PAGE
=====> ONWARD TO THE SECOND POTATO LESSON.