Putting together the misplaced origins of Philly’s Irish potato | Philly Views
March 15, 2017

Putting together the misplaced origins of Philly’s Irish potato

Written by Matt Schickling

Every year around St. Patrick’s Day, I eat Irish potatoes at least once.

I have never gone to the store to buy them, I don’t seek them out and I definitely have not made them. The candy just appears in my plane of vision somehow — a box of small, brown spheres that look incredibly unappetizing — and I indulge.

It’s a strange craving, because it’s not just the looks. Almost everything else about them seems unappetizing. The main ingredients are cinnamon, cream cheese and coconut. The texture lands somewhere between crunchy and gooey, but neither of those words accurately describe it. It feels like a candy made from the leftovers of another desert.

Irish potatoes also have absolutely nothing to do with Ireland, nor do they contain any potato. If you called someone in Ireland right now and asked them to give you a recipe for Irish potatoes, they would either give you a gardening lesson or just be completely puzzled.

Despite all that, Irish potatoes actually taste incredible. They look bad and they make no sense, but they’re awesome and should be sold year-round. Basically, if you mash butter, cream cheese, sugar and flaked coconut into a ball and then roll it in cinnamon, you have an Irish potato.

According to the legends, the treat was created in Philadelphia, presumably by somebody Irish but the details remain murky at best. In fact, a lot of questions about the origin of Irish potatoes are unanswered, and perhaps are unanswerable.

I’m going to do my best to piece together the details.


They’re over 100 years old

According to Oh Ryan’s, apparently the world’s largest distributor, Irish potatoes are over 100 years old.

Sidenote: Oh Ryan’s factory is located in Delco, and ships about 80,000 pounds of the candy to both chains and small candy stores, mostly in the Philly region. These products also do not contain cream cheese, so they have a longer shelf life. Instead, they use buttercream, which makes me feel a little cheated for ever eating Oh Ryan’s Irish potatoes, even though I didn’t notice the difference.

There’s no consensus

The Pennsylvania General Store, one of Philly’s most prominent Irish potato sellers, offers up an anecdote about a “penny-wise candy maker” who didn’t know what to do with his leftover coconut cream. He dipped it in cinnamon and a new candy was born.

This is good, and perhaps even true, but it will never be verifiable.

Other sources claimed that Irish immigrants came up with the candy, but offered little else in terms of support. Apart from that, there’s really not much else out there.

It’s not an origin story, but there is a quick anecdote about how the candy used to be served.

According to this article, candymakers used to put coins in some of them. If you bit into a coin, it was considered good luck.

Let’s Get Our Story Straight

Even if untrue, I’d like to see some solidarity in terms of which Irish potato origin stories we’re promoting and which we should put to rest. Frankly, I think we should just create a new one altogether.

That’s the advantage of having no true, based-in-fact history — you get to basically come up with whatever you want. We get to control the narrative around our holiday treats, so we might as well come up with something cool.

To take it even further,  a bold Philadelphia candy shop should claim to be the originator. No one could really deny their claim, and they’d probably get to make a few extra bucks around this time of year.

I think eventually people would just go along with it, because no one knows where Irish potatoes come from, except that they come from Philly.

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