Tag Archives: Potatoes

Irish-American Hygiene Advice

Background: The informant is a woman in her late fifties who grew up in downstate New York in Queens and on Long Island before moving to upstate New York for college. In her mid 20s, she moved out to Southern California and she had lived there ever since. She comes from a large family of Catholic Irish-Americans.

Main Text:

“If you don’t clean out your ears or bellybutton, you’ll grow potatoes there.”

Context: Typically, this warning is told to children as a way to incentivize them into proper hygiene. As the informant explained it, there was an association between the dirt that gathered when someone didn’t clean their body and the dirt that potatoes grow in. The saying came directly from her grandmother, who emigrated from Ireland to New York as a young adult. However, the saying seemed to backfire for the informant—she admits that she never wanted to clean her ears or bellybutton after being told this hyperbole, just so she could see if potatoes actually grew.

Thoughts: The informant happens to be my mother, so I also grew up with this saying. Similar to her, I found the lie to be more interesting than scary, and as a young child I also avoided cleaning my bellybutton just to see what would happen. It’s interesting how these types of rumors can actually backfire on gullible children, instead encouraging them to do the opposite of what they’re told. I wonder if my great-grandmother knew that when she used the phrase, and only repeated it to her children and her children’s children because she found it amusing. This phrase also reminds me of another popular schoolyard rumor, where supposedly if you swallow a watermelon seed it will grow inside of you. The Irish Potato warning seems to be somewhat less widespread in the United States. None of my friends can recall a similar warning, and the only other place I’ve encountered it being used it in Frank McCourt’s book Angela’s Ashes, a memoir about Irish-American immigrants.

Further Citations:

McCourt, Frank. Angela’s Ashes. Scribner, 1996.

Haitian Halloween

Originally from Florida, this friend of mine grew up around a wide range of cultures and traditions. Raised by Haitian and Colombian immigrants, she speaks Haitian-Creole, French, English, and a little bit of Spanish. We share a love of food, and spend a lot of time talking about food and different recipes and whatnot, so when this project came down the pipeline, I knew I had to ask her about some unique, family recipes.

The following was recorded during a group interview with 4 other of our friends in the common area of a 6-person USC Village apartment.

“Um, so like Christmas dinners – my whole family would come into like – we would rotate which house we would go to. And then everyone was – not really assigned – but everyone knew what like, what dish to bring. Cause like, that’s the only thing you’re good for, so just bring that. I was desserts. My mom was – there’s this thing called Soufflé Maïs, so. It was so good. It’s like sweet corn and cheese. And then – it was soufflé because it’s cooked in the oven. And then my mom also makes – I call it egg salad because I like the eggs more than the potatoes. With spam and hotdogs or either like mayo or mustard. It’s so good, it’s so delicious. It’s not a Haitian dish, it’s just a dish. And then uh, ah, Diri Djon Djon. So it’s like black rice basically. It’s soooo good. It’s like rice – of rice, and then the type of mushroom you put in with the rice. Cause it blackens the rice. And then you put peas in it.”

She later told me that these same dishes would be served around Halloween, as her family created a tradition of having a Halloween dinner every year. The Diri Djon Djon was particularly popular then, as the black color lends itself perfectly to the spookiness of Halloween-time. It was cool to hear about how her family mixed American dishes with Haitian dishes, at times using each culture as a sort of springboard into unexplored food territory. Before I finished the interview, I made her promise to bring me some Souffle Maïs next time her mom made it.

Searching for the pot of potatoes at the end of the rainbow

The informant and I were talking about superstition, tradition, and Irish heritage, so he told me the following anecdote.

“In the Irish superstition, if you see a rainbow and you follow it, you’ll find a pot of gold. I remember as a kid, literally going and walking after a rainbow trying to find it. But I think because it’s Irish… I heard somebody say that one time it came from… basically saying you have to search for like, gold, and like search really far, but in Ireland gold is like potatoes, because they grow a lot of potatoes and they make money with that, but I heard somebody say that’s where it came from, like searching for a bunch of potatoes to sell, something like that. They call it gold just like they say ‘black gold’ for oil… I remember hearing that as a kid, so that was like a fun story”

This was a twist, at least to my knowledge, to the well-known myth of finding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. I hadn’t heard this version before, although I’m sure there are many variations to the myth.

 

Ghost Potato

Click Here for Audio file of Interview

“So, Ghost Potato is a game, that was passed on to me, uh when I lived in England, by a colleague. And I don’t know where he got it from, whether it’s an ancient game, I am uncertain about that. But in Ghost Potato, a large group of people are divided up into two possible roles: one is Ghost, and the other is Potato. Uhh, the game is then played blindfolded or with closed eyes. Nobody can see anything. And uh, the participants wander around a-a confined space. When they bump into each other, they must gently whisper their identity to one another. So for example, someone would bump into someone and then they’d just go ghost, or like that, or potentially potato. Now, and then the rules of the game state that if a ghost meets a ghost and they, exchange identities, then nothing happens. And if a potato meets a potato, then, nothing happens. But if a ghost should meet a potato, then the potato DIES! That is the rule of the game. And then all dead potatoes move to the side of the room, next to the sensei or referee who’s looking, who’s looking after the whole thing, and um, and then when potatoes, dead potatoes see live potatoes in danger of being caught by ghosts, they are encouraged to make the following sound: oohwoahohoh. Like that, thus warning the still living potatoes, or tubers, uh that they are um, potentially about to be caught. That’s ghost potato.”

“Well, I understand, all walks of life can attempt Ghost Potato, but it is a little dangerous. So I prefer to reserve it for, um, sophisticated, uh, actors, who understand, the dangers of, of the imagination. And uh, I think in my time only one or two people have tipped over the edge and, and sort of lost themselves in the spiritual abyss that awaits them, at the vortex which is Ghost Potato.”

 

This game allows the players to really have fun, and prevent them from taking themselves too seriously. The rules are extremely simple, and its very funny when Actors, many of whom try to come off as serious artists play something that was probably designed for kindergartners. Its also like a practical joke on the players, because the source, who moderates this game with his students, gets to watch a group of adults wander around a room, bump into each other and whisper.

Marzipan Potatoes

The source’s father is a second generation Norwegian. Her grandfather immigrated from Norway to Chicago. While marzipan isn’t a specifically Norwegian desert, its found at every family gathering.

What makes the family marzipan unique, is that they always make it in the shape of a potato. This tradition was started by the source’s grandmother, who felt that potatoes were good luck, and wanted to serve marzipan potatoes to the family member so everyone would drive home safely. Her grandmother has since passed on, but the family tradition is now carried on by her Aunt Camille.

I believe that the tradition of making their favorite marzipan desert in the shape of potatoes reflects the family’s new home in Chicago, which has always had a very large Irish population.

‘Potato Slop’ – North Carolina

“This is a recipe that I learned from my mother. Ah, and we call it ‘potato slop’ even though outside of our family it would probably be called shepard’s pie. But basically what you do is you take a sauce pan and you brown up some ground beef and drain out the oil. And then you dice some onions and add them in. And then once you have the onions and the meat you fill the pan with water – almost to the very brim. And then you put really really thinly sliced potatoes in it – and they have to be thinly sliced so they cook quickly. And then you just put a lid on it and simmer it until the potatoes are kinda squooshy and then you take the lid off and let the water boil off. And then you have this kind of uh, potato, onion, ground beef mush. It sounds really unappetizing but then you stir in this taco seasoning and sometimes peas or corn if you feel like you need vegetables.”

The informant is a 20-year-old Theatre student at the University of Southern California. She grew up in North Carolina.

It was a dish the informant would eat on a day when her mother didn’t have a lot of work as it takes some time to make it. She thinks this recipe is delicious and she is fairly good at making it. If she’s cooking with friends or is trying to impress someone with her cooking this is her go-to recipe, unless they’ve already had it.

I think the Mexican influence is interesting, as North Carolina is not all that close to Mexico and yet this recipe has taco seasoning. This seems to evidence that the Mexican culinary traditions are becoming a standard part of American cooking. I would note that this is contrary to what assimilation theory would predict as this evidences Americans – as natives of the host country – incorporating Mexican traditions into their own. I would not say that this necessarily evidences a holistic acceptance of Mexican immigrants, certainly this shows that Mexican food is becoming increasingly thought of as American.