“Arsh potatoes” is what you might hear an old-timer in the Appalachians refer to when talking about Irish, or white, potatoes. Arsh potatoes are different from sweet potatoes, which also are quite fondly eaten in the Southern Appalachian Mountains.
Roots of Ancestry
Appalachian Mountain people have always been exceptionally self-reliant. They eat whatever they can find or grow themselves. Farming in the hard-scrabble mountain dirt is difficult today and in the past was near impossible. With unpredictable weather patterns, the growing season can be just as unpredictable. And forget about the ground — it often is as rocky as a dried-out creek bed.
A 2011 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists identified Appalachia as “the most diverse foodshed in North America despite the harsh conditions.” It’s the endurance and independence of the Appalachian people that drives the vast potential and love for locally sourced food. The people of Appalachia have long been ahead of the “eat-local” political movement of the 21st century. For Appalachian ancestors, “eat local” has always been a way of life.
Ireland became the first European country to embrace the potato after conquistadors returned from South America with tubers that grew heartily in the higher elevations of the Northern Andes. Potatoes thrive in the moist, cool, cloudy environment found in Ireland — which closely resembles the high mountains of what is now Peru and Bolivia.
Irish peasants in the 1700s ate anywhere from eight to 14 pounds of potatoes a day, providing up to 80 percent of their daily caloric intake. The vast intake of protein, vitamins and complex carbohydrates found in potatoes helped the Irish gain strength and endurance for decades. Unfortunately, a blight in 1845 lead to what is now known as the “great potato famine.” More than a million Irish died by 1848, representing about an eighth of the Irish population.
Moving to New Lands
During this great famine, many Irish families moved to the New World, landing in Pennsylvania. Later waves of immigrants found their way to the west and discovered the hills and hollers of the Appalachian Mountains. It was an ideal setting for the potato-loving farmers to settle and grow their crops, unfettered by outsiders.
By 1870, one-half of the population of Ireland had immigrated to the United States. One Irish immigrant wrote in the London Times in 1850:
“What you labour for is sweetened by contentment and happiness;
there is no failure in the potato crop, and you can grow every crop you wish,
without manuring the land during life. You need not mind feeding pigs,
but let them into the woods and they will feed themselves,
until you want to make bacon of them.”
Mountain Crop Planting
The mountains of North Carolina rank first in the cultivation of sweet potatoes in the United States, with white Irish potatoes running a close second. To grow your own, plant pieces of a whole potato or a small whole potato, called tubers, each with at least two visible eyes per piece, within two weeks of the last spring frost.
Potatoes thrive in cool, loosened soil and need consistent watering. Hilling, the practice of continuing to cover parts of the tuber with dirt as it grows, is vital to keep the plants from burning in the sunlight. Hilling is done before the potato plants bloom, when the plant is about six inches tall. Hoe the dirt up around the base of the plant to cover the root and support the plant. Bury them in the loose soil.
Tubers are best planted between March 15 and April 15. They should be ready to harvest within 95 to 120 days. Mark your calendars and enjoy the fruits (or potatoes) of your labor!
Photo credits: amounderness.co.uk,