Friday, February 5, 2016

Nellie's Colcannon

A taste of the old country!

A long time ago on Tumblr, I saw someone making a comment about how scientifically speaking, a human being can get all the nutrients they need to survive from eating just potatoes and milk. A commenter said this was amazing, and wanted to know why no one had ever tried it. A second responded pointed out this has been done before: it's called Ireland.

True, but not exactly funny when you actually know the history behind it.

Colcannon is a simple, hearty dish that's essentially mashed potatoes with a few added vegetables thrown in for added flavor, texture, and padding. The name comes from the Gaelic word for "white headed cabbage", as cabbage or kale is usually used to flesh out the mashed potatoes. It was originally considered to be a bit of a treat, as many Irish people did not grow cabbages on their own plots of land, and thus didn't have easy access to them. How did this and the potato itself become such a staple of Irish food culture and cuisine?

Well, I'll tell you.

(She's going to tell, she's going to tell, she's going to tell...

Sorry, Monty Python joke.

The potato itself is actually a New World root vegetable originally domesticated in Peru, completely unknown to Europeans before the "discovery" of the Americas - Blackadder fans might remember Sir Walter Raleigh having recently discovered them in the Blackadder II episode conveniently named "Potato". Originally, some people didn't really know what to do with them. In the episode, Lord Melchett offers Blackadder one to smoke, and while this isn't necessarily an accurate depiction of an Elizabethan's idea of what to do with my favorite vegetable, it's true that some people thought you were supposed to eat the leaves, not the roots, or that the potato was dangerous in some way, or even worse, a powerful aphrodisiac.

Eventually, Europeans realized these were a hardy, tasty vegetable, and everyone from the lowliest peasant to the richest royalty began to consume them. Potatoes are credited with saving thousands if not millions of lives! Before their introduction to Europe, peasants would starve when their nobles went to war with each other because their fields would be burned and their crops plundered. Potatoes can keep for a very long time if stored properly, and so peasants began to grow potatoes and hide them in their cellars. Instant famine protection!

But while the rest of Europe was on board for this, the British remained a little wary of these vegetables, and decided to try them out in Ireland first. At the time of the potato's introduction in the late 1500's, Ireland was under the tyrannical thumb of Great Britain. A largely Catholic nation ruled by an oppressive Protestant regime, the average Irish person who wanted to stick with their customs and traditions was essentially powerless in a system that favored English settlers or Irish people who were willing to convert. A lot of Britain's tactics in managing the native Irish population would later be applied to the Native people of North America they encountered, which should give you an idea of how horrible it was to be Irish at the time, and moving forward.

Enough potatoes to feed a family can be grown on only an acre of land, so poor laborers (a huge percentage of Ireland's native population) could rent land from a wealthy, generally English landlord and with the help of a cow manage to keep a family alive on what amounted to a subsistence diet of milk and potatoes. This worked out okay, in that families managed to stay fed in desperate times and it's actually a fairly nutritious diet, but relying so heavily on only two sources of food puts you at a big risk if something happens to one of those two.

You see where I'm going with this? 

 In 1845, potato blight ravaged that year's potato harvest, leaving millions of people starving and desperate. What did Great Britain do in the face of this devastation to help the country they'd colonized?

Pretty much nothing.

Despite having the food, money and other resources to help the starving population of Ireland, Great Britain largely turned their back on Ireland. Although there were some attempts at relief early on in the famine, these died off or were stopped entirely by the British government, leading to increased resentment of British rule and an enthusiasm for Irish independence. The crop would fail again in '46, '47, and '48, and what became known as the Great Famine or the Irish Potato Famine didn't end until 1849. Ireland had a population of 8 million people before the famine, and by the time it was over, 1 million were dead and 1 million had left the country, most finding new homes in the United States.

We don't know when Nellie and her family would have come to the United States. She could have been born in Ireland, her parents could have come over as young people, or they might have lived in the United States their whole lives. Irish immigrants continued to find new homes in the Americas for generations after the famine had ended, and had immigrated here earlier than that as well - my grandfather's maternal line has been here since before the Potato Famine, and his father came from Ireland to the US somewhere between 1900 and 1920. It's certainly possible she and her family could have roots to the Great Famine. Maybe her parents' parents were affected by it and chose to move in the 1840's. Maybe their lives never really got back on track afterward and they came later looking for better opportunity. In America, Irish immigrants were also treated with disdain, and were often lumped in as a minority with Black Americans, Jews, Asian Americans and other ethnic groups who were considered undesirable to the rest of the population. Some Irish immigrants worked to suppress their accents, let go of some of their customs, and even changed their names to be less easily identified as Irish, dropping the "O" in front of names like Sullivan or Toole.

Others held on to parts of their home culture, and because colcannon is so simple to make and uses cheap ingredients (especially because cabbages were easier to get your hands on in the United States than they might have been for a subsistence farmer in Ireland back when the dish was first popularized), it's definitely not difficult to imagine why some immigrant families would keep this in their family recipe book after coming to America. Not only is it a taste of home, but it's budget friendly and nutritious, which were both major pluses when you were an overworked, underpaid factory worker in a city like New York or Boston.

My recipe comes from IrishCentral, and is a pretty standard version of the dish. It's really not complicated or fussy, so most recipes will have the same combination of ingredients even if the proportions are a little different. To begin, you need four pounds of potatoes. The recipe advises that these should be russet potatoes, but much like my ancestors, I discovered one of my potatoes was rotten the whole way through, so I had to throw in a couple red potatoes to help make up the difference in weight.

You peel the potatoes, chop them up (this helps them cook faster!) and put them in a large pan with water to boil them, just like you would with any other mashed potato recipe. You know they're done when you can stick a knife or a fork all the way through them with little resistance.

While your potatoes cook, you thinly slice up one head of green cabbage (or kale, but I wanted cabbage) and put it in a large saucepan. You then cover it with boiling water (this is when a tea kettle comes in handy!) and keep it at a slow, rolling boil for about 3 to 5 minutes, or until the cabbage has gotten a little wilted and a darker green.

Now, I'd never cooked cabbage by myself before, and let me tell you, everything everyone says about it smelling like old socks is absolutely true. It tastes fine when it's done, but the actual cooking was nasty. I definitely thought everyone was exaggerating! Now I know.

The recipe warns not to overcook your cabbage, but I'm pretty sure I might have. It wasn't exactly al dente when I took it out of the pan to pat/wring it dry as instructed. When I was done, I put them back in the pan, added a third of a stick of butter to the pan, put the lid back on and kept it off of the burner so the butter would melt onto the cabbage.

My potatoes were ready to go not long afterward. I drained the water, and then put the potatoes back on the burner at a low heat to dry them out as instructed. Next came the flavoring: one cup of cream, 1/3 of a stick of butter and five chopped scallions.

I was impatient and also tossed in my parsley.

You leave this on the burner until the butter has almost fully melted, and then go to town with your potato masher. The recipe strongly recommends to do this by hand rather than putting it through a ricer or an electric mixer, but I always hand mash potatoes anyway. There's something very satisfying about it!

When that's done, you're ready to serve it. Once you've got them all in a bowl, you make a well in the center and add in the last 1/3 of a stick of butter into it. The potatoes will slowly melt the butter until you've got a neat little pool of butter there.

The well is designed so that you can dunk spoonfuls of colcannon into it before eating it. Much like barmbrack, colcannon is a dish that was traditionally served at Halloween, and has become a year round favorite in Ireland, as well as around the world. Again, like barmbrack, people would hide little charms inside bowls of colcannon, generally divining your fate in the coming year. Like most games of this nature, the charms mostly have to do with being married or single, or coming into wealth or poverty. Girls would also hang socks filled with colcannon on the doorknob of their home's front door, saying that the first man who entered would be their future husband.

Now, I'm a big mashed potato fan, so I was pretty convinced I was going to at least thoroughly enjoy this dish even if I didn't love it, and let me tell you, that was kind of underselling it. I really did genuinely love this. I know some of my taste testers didn't share these feelings because there was cabbage in it (sorry Dad!), but most of us agreed that this was really, really tasty. I generally don't add anything to my mashed potatoes beyond butter, another milk product for creaminess, salt and pepper, but my college used to slip in spinach and other vegetables to try and trick kids into eating better, so it's definitely not a totally foreign concept to me. Despite smelling kind of terrible while cooking, the cabbage was perfectly pleasant, the scallions added nice extra flavor, and overall, this was a very solid side dish to a couple different meals over the last few days. I would definitely make it again and would recommend trying it out for yourself. With minimal extra work, you too can turn regular mashed potatoes into a beloved Irish classic that features what became Ireland's signature food item.

As a slight side note, I think it's really interesting how a staple food item that was effectively forced on a minority ethnic group can become so representative of the culture as a whole, and be widely embraced by that group even with its darker history. Much like Black Americans have continued to enjoy collared greens and black eyed peas the same way their ancestors did while they were enslaved, both Irish and groups that are ethnically Irish but immigrated somewhere else still embrace the potato. Many who no longer live in Ireland aren't even really aware of the darker history of it, and just assume that Irish people have always grown and liked potatoes, not that they were essentially forced to do it or starve.

Despite being largely Irish American and loving mashed potatoes, I'd never actually tried colcannon before doing this post. I don't know a lot about my family history, but between the fact that my family came here before the Civil War at the earliest (probably, that's as far back as we can get) and the early 1900's at the latest, I think it's safe to say a lot of what makes us Irish besides our religious affiliation and our names has kind of been lost to history. I'm very curious to know how much of this was intentional - I do know my grandfather's grandpa on my dad's side changed the family name to seem more "American", but did we stop eating things like colcannon or corned beef and cabbage (an Irish American dish, as I explained a while ago) regularly to better fit in with our neighbors, or did it just kind of happen because times change and where you came from mattered less the longer you live here?

Don't get me wrong - I like being American and I don't mind that I don't have strong ties to any other country or culture. This is where I was born and raised, and as frustrating as it is to be here sometimes, I really wouldn't want to live anywhere else, but I'm still curious about what exactly my early ancestors felt they had to give up to fit in with their American neighbors, and what they simply discarded in favor of the interesting, new things they and their children discovered in America. Did colcannon get lost in the shuffle, or did it get left behind as a reminder of a homeland that wasn't theirs anymore?

Guess I know what I'm going to ask if I ever get a time machine! 

Until then, go make some colcannon. You won't regret it.


  1. Ooo, I want to make/eat this.

    Fun fact--the above ground fruits of potatoes are highly poisonous. The leaves not as badly, but like tomatoes, potatoes are part of the nightshade family. This is why for some time, people thought tomatoes were going to kill you if you ate them (potato fruit look like under ripe tomatoes).

    1. I had actually heard that! Bummer for the first person to discover it, haha.

  2. Well, I have always wondered about this dish ever since you and your siblings watched Disney Channel's Luck of the Irish. Kyle's mom sent him to school with a bucket of colcannon when she started to turn back into a leprechaun. I'm glad I finally got to taste it. It was tasty and I would gladly have again.

    1. Ours definitely looked nicer than the bucket she sent him off to school with! I think we need to hunt that movie down now. Maybe we'll get some more ideas. ;)

  3. If you don't like the smell of boiling cabbage, you can always take my lazy way out and microwave them for a couple of minutes. Stir frying the cabbage with garlic and onion is tastier though.

    Other colcannon variations I've done was cooking the mixed potatoes and greens into a pan, stirring occasionally so there are crispy brown bits. I've also used mashed cauliflower to mix in with the potatoes or replace them entirely. Cauliflower leaves also work to supplement the cabbage/kale.

    1. Very cool! Cauliflower might be a hard sell to a few of my family members, but I'll keep the microwave in mind!

  4. Hmmm, I may have to try that sometime! Your blog is so cute! :)

    If you ever are looking for a new blog design, I have a business and my link (Allie's Blog Designs) is below.

    Allie D.

    1. You're welcome!

      Allie D.