Walk into almost any candy store in Philadelphia around mid-March and next to the usual chocolate truffles, caramels, and fudge, you may find piles of Irish potato candy, a uniquely Philadelphian treat that was neither invented in Ireland nor is typically made from potato. Like many regional foods, the candy evokes a sticky sort of nostalgia. “I remember eating Irish potatoes as a kid,” says Paul Bugg of Pennsylvania’s Stutz Candy Company, “but I’ve never seen them outside of this area.”
Irish potato candies are baby fist-sized soft confections designed to look like small potatoes, with a white center and brown exterior. They’re usually made from a coconut-flavored cream filling which is molded into small, slightly oblong potato-sized pieces. Each candy is then rolled in cinnamon, which gives it the appearance of a dirty, freshly dug-up potato. Often, but not always, pine nuts are embedded atop the candy to mimic a potato’s stem buds or eyes.
“We may never know who invented Irish potato candy,” says Ryan Berley, co-owner of Philadelphia’s 154-year-old Shane Candy Company. “But we’re pretty sure it was in the late 1800s or early 1900s, and probably by Irish immigrant candy makers like our shop’s founder Edward Shane.” Chef Walter Staib — who’s also a cookbook author, Emmy Award-winning TV host, and historian — says he “knows for a fact that they were first made in Philadelphia by Irish immigrants.” He now owns and operates Philly’s City Tavern, a replica of a restaurant first erected in 1773. “I did research on the restaurant in those early days,” Staib says. “Starting in the 1800s, Irish indentured servants worked at the restaurant and were making the candy.”
At least one thing is certain: This candy does not have roots in Ireland. Regina Sexton, Irish food historian and history professor at the University of Cork, Ireland, had never heard of the candy, but “the cinnamon coating is an indication of American tastes,” she says. Dr. Chad Ludington, a senior research fellow in the department, concurs. “It sounds like an early-20th century American concoction,” he says. “I suspect the Irish themselves would have been more reverent of the potato than to give a candy this name.”
According to every written and oral history, the rise of Irish potato candy in Philadelphia likely coincided with a large influx of Irish immigrants. Prior to the Great Famine, which occurred between 1845 and 1852, America’s Irish population was fairly low. But during and after the tragedy, Philly’s Irish population boomed as families immigrated to the U.S., looking for a more stable future. “Irish immigrants were not wholeheartedly welcomed when they arrived,” notes Berley. “There was a lot of prejudice. Part of the threat was that they were going to take away American jobs. But like Shane, they persisted and opened up businesses.” Today, America’s Irish-American community is many times larger than the Irish population of Ireland.
Several modern-day makers suggest the candy, like so many things, was invented by accident. Perhaps a chocolate maker had leftover coconut filling and didn’t want to toss it. Dave Lamparelli, the founder of Philadelphia candy company Oh Ryan’s, has his own pet theory based on simple economics. “Candy makers do well on a lot of holidays: Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween, Christmas,” he says. “But there’s a lull between Valentine’s Day and Easter, and maybe some chocolate maker thought, ‘Oh, here’s an easy thing I could make and sell for St. Patrick’s Day.’”
A Philadelphian treat
Notes on American confectionery, one of the first books written on American candy making, was published by Charles C. Huling in 1891. It does not contain a recipe for Irish potato candy, though it does contain one for “Cocoanut cream” as a filling for chocolates. Confectionery books published outside of Philadelphia around the 20th century frequently included recipes for “Cocoanut drops.” Jake Friedman's Common-Sense Candy Teacher, dated 1911, contains a recipe for “Cream Potatoes”: a coconut-flavored buttercream-like filling dipped in cinnamon and decorated with pignoli nuts to look like a potato’s eyes. At some point a candy maker must have given them a new name, and it stuck.
By the early 1900s, when Philadelphia was America’s candy capital, between 200 and 300 candy manufacturers called the city home. Some of those candy companies are still in business today, including Asher’s, Whitman’s, and Shane Candy Company, which was originally opened in 1863 by German candy make Samuel Herring. The storefront went through several owners and offered a variety of sweets until 1911, when it was bought by Edward R. Shane, a canned fruit seller. “We know that Shane was of Irish descent,” Berley says, “and that his family came to the U.S. in 1848 because of the Great Famine.” When Shane took over the building, he turned the business into a retail shop and likely added Irish potato candy to the menu, which also features bright, glass-like molded sugar candies and chocolate creams.
In 2010, Ryan and Eric Berley, mustachioed history buffs and entrepreneurs who also run the Franklin Fountain, purchased the rundown shop from the Shane family. They spent 18 months renovating the old interior, and were able to preserve its original wooden candy counter and apothecary-like shelving. Though the store is still better known for its clear toy candy, head confectioner Stephen Padilla says its Irish potato candy is extremely popular this time of year. “I’d say we go through over 500 per week,” Padilla says, noting that they are made in small batches and rolled and finished by hand. Shane’s starts offering them on March 1 every year, and Padilla says they keep Irish potatoes on the shelves until around Easter.
The recipe Padilla makes today was adapted from that 1911 book of confectionery, according to the Berley brothers. To make the candy even more Philadelphian, they added cream cheese, “which also offsets the sweetness of the candy with its tart notes,” says Ryan Berley.
“It’s a cream cheese and confectioners’ sugar mixture,” Padilla explains, “to which we add macaron and angel flake coconut that has been rehydrated in coconut water.” (Macaroon or dessicated coconut is more like small, pinhead chips of sweetened, dried coconut than stringy flakes.) The candies are then portioned by hand, rolled in cinnamon, and dotted with bits of nuts or seeds.
Most of the larger Irish potato manufacturers don’t put cream cheese in their candies, at least in part because adding fresh dairy reduces the candy’s shelf life. Lamparelli’s Oh Ryan’s has been making Irish potato candies since it opened 28 years ago, using vanilla buttercream (but not cream cheese), mixed with coconut flavoring and macaroon coconut. “We have two 130-year-old machines that measure and cut and roll the filling into balls,” Lamparelli says, “and another machine that coats each one in cinnamon.” Oh Ryan’s production is massive compared to Shane’s. Oh Ryan’s has sold 95,000 pounds of Irish potato candy this year, which works out to 2,800,000 individual potatoes.
It’s a bit odd, though, that 95 percent of Oh Ryan’s candy is sold to residents in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey. “Once you get into New York City, nine out of 10 people don’t know what they are,” Lamparelli notes. Over at Stutz Candy Company — which opened in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, about 30 minutes north of Philadelphia, in 1938 — Bugg agrees. “One thing people forget is that East Coast cities, they like to hold on to their traditions,” he says. “Irish potato candy is an example of that. People here buy them year after year.” Stutz sells nearly 2,000 pounds of the candy each year, which works out to be just under 20,000 individual pieces. Again, most of these are going into mouths in Philly’s tri-state area.
But that’s not to say West Coasters don’t know what an Irish potato is. See’s Candies, which was founded in 1921 in Los Angeles and is now headquartered in San Francisco, has produced what it calls St. Patrick’s Day potatoes for over 50 years. See’s records show that Ed Peck, a former company executive, came up with the idea for the potato candy, perhaps based off one he’d had at a candy show out East.
The California company’s recipe is based on a classic soft candy filling called divinity. Julie Moldafsky, who works in See’s advertising department, says its filling combines white chocolate-flavored divinity and crushed walnuts. That mixture is then cooled and put through a machine that divides it into potato-sized knobs. Each is rolled by hand before being enrobed in milk chocolate, dusted with a mix of cocoa and cinnamon, and adorned with a few pine nuts.
See’s potatoes are sold each year in the month before St. Patrick’s Day and seem to go quickly. The company sold out online particularly early this year; 30,000 pounds of See’s larger potato candies have already shipped out, and no more will be made this season. While Philadelphia’s candy makers cater to the East Coast, See’s has a monopoly on the West Coast market, both in online orders and retail sales.
You say potato, I say...
This confection, in name and recipe, often gets confused with the potato candy of the American South, which is made from actual mashed potato and always includes peanut butter while, traditionally, the one that originated in Philadelphia does not. The distinction can get confusing, since local lore and recipe record keeping is almost never precise. Author Joseph Dabney included a hand-me-down-style recipe called “Irish potato candy” in his 2010 Southern food history Food, Folklore, and Art of Lowcountry Cooking. It includes peanut butter:
Aunt Sophie’s Irish Potato Candy
She’d take one Irish potato and she’d boil it. Then she’d put it into a bowl, skin it and mash it up, and then sprinkle powdered sugar on it. At this point she would roll it out like a jelly roll. Then she’d take peanut butter and she’d spread peanut butter on the potato roll. Then she’d cut it up into sections like a jelly roll, sprinkling a bit more powdered sugar on top. We children just loved it. It entertained us and kept us out of her hair for awhile. — Mary Nicoles, Reidsville, Georgia
Usually recipes for “potato candy” or “old-fashioned potato candy” are referencing a Southern tradition and include peanut butter. Those that have “Irish” in front of their name almost never call for that ingredient. “That peanut butter addition is interesting,” Ryan Berley says. “I’ve seen versions of Irish potato candy made with potato — it’s from Pennsylvania Dutch tradition — but peanut butter... That’s certainly not something you’d see around here.”