Come mid-March, candy sellers around Philadelphia stock their shelves with piles of miniature potato replicas. Tri-state area natives enjoy these nostalgic treats, which go by “Irish potato candy” (but contain no potato), in honor of Saint Patrick’s Day. Despite heavily Irish associations, the sweet spud is an American invention.
Home bakers and commercial confectioners fashion Irish potato candy using different ingredients. While both versions rely on powdered sugar, coconut, and vanilla flavoring, homemade versions use fresh butter and cream cheese. Mothers often prepare the no-cook, dairy-rich base, then let children roll the mixture into lumpy balls that they dip into cinnamon to create the appearance of earth-covered tubers. Commercial sellers, on the other hand, mold potatoes from shelf-stable candy, such as buttercream or Divinity. To help give Irish potato candy its signature look, confectioners may also add pine nuts to create “eyes” in their finished spud.
Every year, Americans buy more than 2.8 million candy taters from a company called Oh Ryan’s. Residents of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware make up 95 percent of their customers. Other companies across the United States also produce their own versions of the sweet, but Ireland is one place you won’t find a fanbase. Perhaps calling Irish Potato Candy “American Coconut Buttercream” would be met with a better reception.