Sure, you've heard of potatoes from Ireland. But have you ever heard of Irish Potato Candy?
No, they're not made of potato (although candies made with potato do exist!).
Comprised of coconut cream coated in cinnamon, they're a Philadelphia tradition, with varieties produced by just about every confectioner in town (Whole Foods even has their own version!).
But one of the most ubiquitous specimens around town is the version made by a company called Oh Ryan's. As they say on their website,
Irish Potatoes are not Irish and there is no potato in them. A Philadelphia tradition for over 100 years, they are a coconut cream center rolled in cinnamon. Because they are rolled in cinnamon, they look like small potatoes. They traditionally come out for St. Patrick's Day, hence the name “Irish Potatoes.”
In spite of it being a long-standing Philadelphia tradition, Oh Ryan's has only been around since 1989--
Oh Ryan's Irish Potatoes is a family-run company that has been making Irish Potatoes since 1989. We named the company after our 1-year-old son, Ryan, since he has such a nice Irish name.
Now that Ryan is all grown up, he works alongside his father in the company that has grown to be the largest producer of Irish Potatoes today. 90% of our sales have been in the Philadelphia area, but we have shipped them all across the country from Massachusetts to Florida, to California, and as far away as Nome, Alaska.
But in that time, they have established themselves as the largest purveyor of the sweet potatoes.
But I digress. The point is that the candies are labeled "Irish" more because of their look than because of any Irish ingredient or candy-making tradition (not unlike the "Potato" pastry made by Nielsen's in Seattle). And, to that point, here's a recipe from the 1920s that I found on The Food Timeline:
"Candy Irish Potatoes for St. Patrick's Day Take five pounds of bon bon cream and into knead one pound of almond paste, stiffening it with XXXX powdered sugar while working, if necessary. When thoroughly kneaded, shape into small spuds about the size of an ink bottle, and while moist rub with powdered cinnamon. Use almond paste or pignolia nuts pressed in side to represent eyes or sprouts, or simply make little dents for the eyes. Care must be taken to bet the cinnamon to stick good." ---Rigby's Reliable Candy Teacher, W.O. Rigby, 19th edition 1920s? (p. 208)
Interestingly, the site also mentions that "Curiously, we do not find any potato candies in our historic British confectionery texts, candy reference books, books on potatoes, or Irish culinary sources."
Unlike another potato-inspired candy, the Idaho Spud, the Irish Potato seems to proliferate primarily around St. Patrick's day time. And while it is most popular in the Philadelphia area, California-based See's Candies also makes a version. As I learned from Serious Eats,
But the West Coast confectionery See's shouldn't get all the credit for the spud trompe l'oeil. Just outside Philadelphia in Linwood, Pennsylvania, Oh Ryan'sships about 80,000 pounds of these spud-candies per year, mostly within the state. It's a Philly-area tradition that spans back 100 years, also made from scratch. They start with a special sugar made for candy-makers, then make vanilla buttercream and add coconut flavoring and macaroon coconut for flavor and texture.
As the Serious Eats article concludes, "File this under another Americanism that Irish people in Ireland probably have no clue about."