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Outside of the Philadelphia tri-state area, you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who’s ever heard of Irish potato candy. Yet every spring, these sweet treats are consumed as a rite of passage between St. Patrick’s Day and Easter. Like America itself, the Irish potato candy history is one of immigration and invention.
These confections may be one of the most uniquely Philadelphia foods. There is no doubt that they were invented here and are beloved by locals. Here’s what makes these treats so unique.
What are Irish Potatoes
No, they aren’t actually potatoes. And no, they don’t actually contain any potato of any kind. They are a confectionary treat – a soft candy. And they are only available for a few short weeks every Spring.
Each tasty treat is about two inches long and the diameter of a quarter. They are often said to be about the size of a baby’s fist or your two small fingers together. The key is to make them look as much like potatoes as possible.
They are made from butter and powdered sugar (essentially forming a buttercream), cream cheese, sweetened coconut flakes, vanilla extra and ground cinnamon. Most recipes either feature either the more stable buttercream, or the cream cheese, which means they need to be kept refrigerated and consumed quickly.
However, the exterior decorations can vary greatly, and stores take great pride on making sure their Irish potato candies look just like real spuds. Elaborate versions use multiple cinnamons for color variations. For example, using darker Saigon Cinnamon and lighter Ceylon Cinnamon can give different colorings. Inserting pine nuts after rolling in cinnamon can imitate the eyes of a potato.
The history of Irish potato candy can be traced to immigrants from Ireland who had been coming to the city since the beginning of the country. William Penn himself had Irish roots and converted to Quakerism while in Ireland. His charter of “religious freedoms” drove many Irish to come to Philadelphia over other cities on the East Coast.
The population of Irish immigrants swelled significantly throughout the 1800s. By the time of the Great Famine in Ireland, the Irish were the single largest ethnic group in the city of Philadelphia. They owned businesses and were thoroughly ingrained in the businesses enterprises of the city…including its taverns and restaurants.
We know the candy was invented in Philly because the first references to it were here. By the mid-1800s, indentured servants at the famous City Tavern were making it for patrons. Cookbooks from 1891-1911 contained variations on the recipe (although not using the Irish potato name).
Throughout the 20th Century, Philadelphia was the Candy Capital of America. More candy and confection manufacturers existed here than anywhere else. Many of those same companies are still in existence to this day. And many iconic foods from Pennsylvania have their roots in this storied history of sweetness.
The Shane Candy Company (now owned by Franklin Fountain folks) was started by an Edward Shane, an Irish immigrant who can to the United States because of the famine in 1848. The company still produces these festive spuds.
Another local manufacturer, Oh Ryan’s, skips on the cream cheese so they can be mass produced and kept for longer. Despite producing millions of the oblong spuds, nearly all of them are consumed in the Tri-State area. The passion for these gems is truly local.
A Beneficial Invention
While we don’t know exactly who invented Irish potato candies, we can be certain that he or she was an astute business professional. In the candy and confection business, there’s a slow period near the end of winter. From Valentine’s Day in early February through Easter, business can be slow. So having a holiday treat for mid-March can inject some excitement into their business – and some cash into the cash registers.
Any good idea is likely to spawn derivatives and these tasty treats are no exception. The Philadelphia-based Insomnia Cookies has a Irish potato cookie based on the candy and it is available nationwide at their retail stores or via mail-order. And local Federal Donuts has an Irish potato donut every St. Patrick’s Day that is rooted in the candy.
Try Them For Yourself
In the weeks leading up to St. Patrick’s, you can find Irish potatoes in many candy stores and even some supermarkets, including:
- Shane Confectionery at 110 Market Street
- Baker Brothers at 2300 South 3rd Street
- Barry’s Buns at 8221 Germantown Avenue or in the Bourse
- Pennsylvania General Store at Reading Terminal at 51 North 12th Street
- Anthony’s Italian Coffee and Chocolate House at 903 South 9th Street
- Stutz Candy Company at all locations including Hatboro, Warminster, and Ship Bottom, NJ
- Many Wawa locations
- And grocery stores like Acme, BJ’s Wholesale, Giant, McCaffrey’s, ShopRite, Weaver’s Way Coop, and Wegmans