With a name like Doyle, it should be no surprise that potatoes have been a big part of my diet since I was a child. In fact for me, St. Pat’s Day is remembered not only as a period to celebrate my heritage, but also the time of year when my very Irish father, and his very Irish buddy Smitty, always began what I call The Great Potato Race.
Smitty was a family friend of ours from before I was born and I can recall with clarity listening to him and my Dad pontificate on their potato growing prowess throughout my childhood: who grew the tastiest, who grew the biggest, who could grow the greatest quantity; but the one aspect of potato growing they were very competitive about was who could get some in the ground first. And St. Pat’s Day was the target date, at least for Dad.
Planning on planting a vegetable on a certain date in early spring is a tricky proposition in Wisconsin. However, I recall some seasons where this was the natural thing to do, particularly when springtime came early and the ground thawed enough to dig a hole. Some years the entire crop could even be planted if the weather cooperated. In fact, I can remember one St. Pat’s Day when clovers were growing.
But there were many years when planting potatoes on St. Patty’s Day was downright absurd. I have an image ingrained in my mind of my father, banging a shovel into the ground during a blizzard, trying to plant potatoes on St. Pat’s Day. “Did something die?” I asked my mother as I watched Dad through a window, figuring he was burying some unfortunate critter. “No, he’s trying to plant potatoes,” said Mom with a sigh of resignation and then I would remember The Great Potato Race and feel good we were once again in the competition.
At our house, the potato patch was strictly Dad’s forte. He was the master and we kids were his lowly minions. Mom stayed out. Aside from the St. Pat’s Day token planting, we were allowed into the patch only to do the lowest of labor chores. Some of my humblest experiences were when I was crawling along in the dirt, digging holes for the seed potatoes my father threw in as he stood over us. This was also when we learned many patriarchal lessons in life, such as “the man with the gold makes the rules” or “never be afraid to stand up for what is right,” which are actually lessons that have stood the test of time.
Of course, just boasting about growing potatoes wasn’t enough for Dad and Smitty, and they took their bragging rights a step farther when we kids joined 4-H. These two Irishmen saw this as a way to compete in an arena where an impartial judge could determine who was master potato grower. When fair time rolled around, I was dispatched to Smitty’s garden, where he and I dug up, and then selected, the most perfect specimens. One of my sisters would show Dad’s crop and the spuds would be artfully arranged in boxes awaiting the judging. When the ribbons were awarded, there were years when exalted hoots from my Dad could be heard all over the exhibition barn and other years where cursing was delivered in an under-the-breath nonstop barrage, depending on the ribbon color.
There’s no doubt that this Sunday I will be thinking about The Great Potato Race once again. Unfortunately, this competition is no longer as Smitty passed away some years ago, but that doesn’t stop me from remembering this fun-filled competition and the tasty results, no matter who was declared the winner. In fact, this week I included an old Irish potato recipe called Colcannon. It is a popular dish in Ireland and one I make frequently, especially during the cold months of the year.
And that’s what this St. Patrick’s Day will behold: lots of cold with plenty of snow, but that won’t stop me from recalling the many fine runnings of The Great Potato Race. A competition any good Irishman would be proud to win.
St. Pat’s Day Colcannon
3 lbs. potatoes, peeled and cubed
4 slices bacon
1 small head of cabbage, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
1/2 cup milk
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup butter, melted
Cook potatoes in water for 15 to 20 minutes or until tender. Cook bacon until crisp and then remove from pan. Reserve drippings. Saute the cabbage and onion in drippings until they are soft. Drain the cooked potatoes and mash with milk, seasoning with salt and pepper. Add the bacon, cabbage and onions. Place in a serving dish and place a well in the center. Pour melted butter into the well.