Oh Ryan's owner Dave Lamparelli (left) really gets into the process, which covers him in cinnamon. by April Lisante This week’s food column is an ode to a love of mine I must say goodbye to …
by April Lisante
This week’s food column is an ode to a love of mine I must say goodbye to shortly, until next year.
When I moved to Philadelphia about 25 years ago, I made a tasty discovery that changed my life.
Yes, I tried authentic cheesesteaks, crab fries, and all the rest.
But it was the Irish potato candy that blew my mind.
After growing up on a strict dessert diet of cannolis, rainbow cookies and tiramisu, I wondered how I had survived decades without this delicacy.
It is cinnamon, coconut and cream, all rolled into one perfectly imperfectly shaped nugget.
The Irish potato.
The candy, served up in a box of 15 for about $4.99 at your local Wawa or deli, is a favorite during Lent, for many who’ve given up chocolate, but need at least a 1000-cc dose of daily sugar. It’s also a favorite for St. Patrick’s Day celebrants, who look forward to it year after year as a monthlong tradition as close to the heart as corned beef and cabbage.
Last Easter, I carted a few boxes of the local Linwood, Pa. favorite Oh Ryan’s Irish potatoes up to my homeland in North Jersey as an experiment of sorts and positioned them covertly on the dessert table for my Jersey and Long Island, N.Y. family to sample. Wedged between my mother’s New York cheesecake, about five dozen cannolis and the annual chocolate fountain, the reaction was mixed.
“Too sweet,” said one aunt. “This is different,” my cousin from Rochester, N.Y. declared. No, it is perfect, I said, secretly planning how I’d pack the leftover nuggets to take home to my Flourtown lair, away from those who could not appreciate the goodness.
This week will be the last time we see the magnificent white boxes of Oh Ryan’s Irish potatoes in stores like Giant, Wawa, BJ’s, and local delis. The seasonal treat made its debut in February in many places, January in some. But the supply is running out quickly. Though the shelf life says it lasts until June 1, it’s hard to find a box of potatoes anywhere after April 1.
“Get them fast is what I say, anyone that has them,” said Harry Hefton, salesman for Oh Ryan’s and longtime friend of Oh Ryan’s owner David Lamparelli. The two were neighbors and limo drivers 30 years ago when they decided to try making the Irish potatoes and selling them locally.
Some say the origin of the candy was with Irish immigrants, others with confectioners with extra ingredients looking for a way to bridge the sales gap between Valentine’s Day and the lull until Easter. Still others hypothesize World War II moms found it a fun, inexpensive baking “craft” to make with their children.
But whatever the origin, Oh Ryan’s has cornered the market on these gems at their Linwood, Pa. factory in Delaware County, where they use a 100-year old machine and an assembly line of ladies to fashion the potatoes. Starting with a 900-pound yield 30 years ago, the company now cranks out 97,000 pounds between December and March each year. It is seasonal because the candy won’t hold up in summer heat.
“It’s the local people who made us this big,” Hefton said, who used to drive location to location, including Superfresh stores, dropping off boxes. Now he sells them on Amazon to every state in the country, and even internationally to France, Germany and other countries who, frankly, appreciate the beauty of the candy.
The cut-and-roll machine in the factory is affectionately called the “chunk-a-chunk,” Hefton said.
“Because that’s all you hear as it makes the candy,” he said.
The beauty of the machine is that it spits out imperfectly shaped blobs, nothing perfectly round. The option for making them perfectly round was a possibility, but that would ruin their charm, Hefton said.
“The balls aren’t completely round,” Hefton said. “They look like little dirty potatoes.”
I considered adding a recipe for home cooks to make the nuggets at the end of the column, but Hefton cautioned against it.
“You can’t use house sugar,” he said. “We use baker’s sugar. It actually softens as it sits. The other sugar gets hard.”
So the bottom line is please, for the love of sugar, just try and find the few boxes that are left on local shelves in the next few weeks.
I, for one, am excited I still have 12 of my 15 Irish potatoes remaining in the box I bought.
No, wait. Ok, make that 11.