As I pull into the Oh Ryan's factory in Linwood, PA, I'm not sure I've got the right place. It's positioned in a particularly industrial-looking section of the southeastern suburbs of Philadelphia, and the potential for a Willy Wonka-style behemoth to poke out its cheerful spires is unlikely, to say the least. But the discreet building, next to what looks like the offices for a local construction outfit, is similar to the treat it produces: a local confection called Irish potatoes that few people have ever heard of.
For over a century, Irish potatoes, a round buttercream sweet layered in sharp cinnamon, have been a preoccupation of Philadelphia locals during the early spring months, and like many of the city's delicacies, their history is spackled with nebulous lore. Stamped in emerald green on each box of Oh Ryan's Irish potatoes is "A Philadelphia Tradition for Over 100 Years." But few claim to know origins of that tradition, or what early iterations of the sugary sweet looked like. Dave Lamparelli, founder of Oh Ryan's, has been in the business himself since 1989, but predating that, only word-of-mouth clues offer insight to the treat's lengthy history.
"When they first made them, they cost a penny a piece. They would put coins in some of them. If you bit into a penny, that was considered good luck," Lamparelli tells me as we chat in the back office of the small production facility. When I ask if the sweet has Irish origins, he shakes his head. "You're not going to find these over in the Blarney Stone." Lamparelli, as well as a number of the bakers and confectioners in the Tri-state area who handroll Irish potatoes, is actually of Italian heritage. The historic Italian Market in South Philadelphia sells Irish potatoes right alongside handmade cannolis and pizzelles.
"The moms used to make them, you know. They'd pass them out at the parade or after school for the kids. Their recipes were all different," Lamparelli says. The parade that he's talking about is how I remember them—every year before performing in my high school marching band at the local St. Patrick's Day parade, we'd fill up on Irish potatoes, making the walk through town an uncertain, queasy stomp.
Lamparelli, an imposing figure with a welcoming handshake, takes me on a tour of the factory, whose décor is a familiar mix of Philadelphia kitsch and old-school charm. High above the entire facility hangs a woodcut portrait of a boxer, lording over the operations like Rocky Balboa. The recipe for Lamparelli's potatoes, or "Irishtaters" as his colleague Harry Hefton says, is simple but nuanced.
"It's a secret," he jokes, as I hold a box labeled with the ingredients in my hands. "You've got coconut, buttercream, vanilla, and sugar. We use macaroon coconut, though. You don't want the consistency to be stringy." This differs from other Irish potatoes, most notably the handmade kind, in having a longer shelf life due in part to the absence of cream cheese.
"A lot of these other ones you can only keep for two or three weeks. Because of the cream cheese, you've gotta refrigerate them," Lamparelli says. His recipe calls for the blended mixture to be wrapped in Korjinte cinnamon, after which they last unrefrigerated for up to six months. "They never actually last that long, though," Lamparelli tells me with a smile.
Oh Ryan's ships their product all over the country, and have donated boxes of the sugary spheres to Afghanistan, to an eager platoon of "Philly boys." But the reach of his company, the largest Irish potato business in production, is not a completely isolated phenomenon. Asher's, a bigger chocolatier in the Philadelphia area, attempted Irish potatoes for several years, even swiping the imagery from Oh Ryan's soon-to-be-patented box, but the sales fell off. Remarkably, outside of Oh Ryan's, Emerald's Confections, and a few smaller independent sweets proprietors, only one other company is in the business of St. Patty's Day Philadelphia-style sweetmaking: California's See's Candies.
See's have been selling Irish potatoes for ten years longer than Oh Ryan's, but the recipe might raise eyebrows among Philadelphia locals. Made with See's trademark "Divinity Filling," their Irish potatoes look and taste unlike the orbs of my youth, as they fold in English walnuts and white chocolate, and have added cocoa powder in the enrobed outer layer. Their version is heartier, more like nougat, and not as easy to thoughtlessly snack on. The variation, however, still sells remarkably well—this year, See's will produce 125,000 boxes to sell in over 200 stores.
As Lamparelli walks me through his factory, I ask him what the recommended intake of Irish potatoes is. "We held a potato eating contest for Irish Weekend in Wildwood a few years back. The guy ate over a hundred Irish potatoes in three minutes." He pauses. "But then he was throwing up all day." That answers the question, just as I pull a potato straight from the conveyor belt that boxes them.
The sweets—when they're enjoyed rather than inhaled—are on par with coconut Easter eggs or innocuous bon bons—a meaty, white inside with a sharp cinnamon bite. Emerald's Confections in Warminster, PA serves the potatoes year round, cleverly dipped with white, dark, and milk chocolate. Lamparelli claims that their recipe requires no tampering, and Hefton adds, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," though he does admit to occasionally selling taters draped with dark chocolate, the cinnamon layer below the surface. When I taste one of these later, the Easter egg comparison is potent.
The machine that makes Oh Ryan's Irish potatoes is, by no surprise, over a hundred years old itself. Lamparelli found it in a basement in Kensington, a rougher area of Philadelphia, and has since kept it healthy with small modifications when needed.
"You see those wheels? They stopped working on us, so we just replaced them with inline skating wheels." The process of making the potatoes is simple and meditative, and the lined prints on the sweets come not from an added flourish, but from the conveyor belt's markings. "We're not high tech," Hefton explains. "But we are in the groove better because of that."
On leaving the building, Lamparelli bags up several boxes of potatoes for me, telling me to "bring them to my family." With roughly 97% of sales going to the Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Delaware area, the exclusivity of the candies seems like another Philly insider phenomenon (like our fanatical devotion to our sports teams or scrapple) that maybe isn't meant for outsider consumption. After all, my memories of them are partially entrenched in child-like nostalgia. As I drive away and immediately tuck into a candy, I wonder if this neither-potato-nor-Irish confection could expand outside of Philadelphia; a short layover in New York before a trip to Ireland.
About the Author: Dayna Evans is a writer and editor based in New York. Her writing has been featured in the Village Voice and Interview Magazine, and she is a contributor at The Hairpin and Gawker. You can find her at daynaevans.com and on Twitter at @hidayna.