No food is more closely identified with Ireland than the potato. Each year, as Irish pride swells around St. Patrick’s Day, cooks across America queue up a host of potato-based dishes meant to evoke cultural memories of the Old Country. But to St. Patrick himself, all those spuds wouldn’t have looked very Irish at all — because the Emerald Isle’s patron saint had been dead for over a thousand years before the first potato found its way to Ireland.
One reason St. Patrick is so beloved is because his missionary work in Ireland happened a very long time ago — during the fifth century, though the precise dates of the saint’s life are uncertain. The saint was probably no glutton, but in between baptizing thousands of fresh believers and arguing with local kings about the new religion, he’d have probably had to sit down for a bite at some point — and he probably would have encountered a dish with bacon and cabbage, though it’s less likely he’d have run across any corned beef.
But many other aspects of a traditional St. Patrick’s Day feast would have been completely impossible in Patrick’s time — including dishes like colcannon, shepherd’s pie, potato pancakes (boxty) and even Irish stew (in its current form). That’s because potatoes originated in South America, which means that no one anywhere in Europe even knew such tubers existed until the Spanish invaded Peru in 1536. So there were no potato-filled pierogis in Poland, no pommes frites in Belgium and no kartoffelsalat in Germany, either.
But the new crop fairly quickly found its way to Ireland after contact with the New World, and by the end of the 1700s it had become one of the Emerald Isle’s most common foods, forever altering Irish cuisine in the process.
There’s a dark side, though, unfortunately: Exploitation by landowners meant that by the 1840s the poor in Ireland were almost completely dependent upon the crop, and a potato blight caused an infamous famine that killed a million people and drove a million more to emigrate, many of them to the United States.
So even if St. Patrick wouldn’t have known anything about potatoes, that doesn’t mean they’re not a quintessential part of Irish history and culture. There’s no reason not to go hard on the spuds on the saint’s namesake day, whether you’re enjoying one of the best chain restaurant St. Patrick’s Day deals or celebrating at one of the best Irish pubs in America.