A Brief History of the Potato Farl


Lucy’s Grandma Norma, around the time that she arrived in the US from Ireland

It’s Culture Day at my daughter’s school this week, and incidentally we just celebrated St. Patrick’s day, so as much as my daughter’s culture around food usually includes anchovies, blue cheese, sushi, and Mint Confetti Ice Cream from Three Twins, she is also quite Irish indeed and it would make sense for us to bring something Irish to share at school.

After somewhat of a disagreement over whether she could bring anchovies to share with her classmates, I came across a recipe for potato farls, cooked them up, got our girl to eat one whereupon she pronounced it delicious, and Culture Day was decided.  First, I got into a little bit of historical meaning behind this food, which I bring to you now.

The potato farl is similar to a potato pancake and is made basically of fried mashed potatoes. It is highly associated with Northern Ireland, and in particular with its main city Belfast. Lucy’s grandmother Norma emigrated from Belfast with her parents when she was a teenager, so our family is strongly associated with Northern Irish culture.

The word farl is pronounced farrel and derives from the old Scots word fardel, which essentially means “a quarter.” Many types of typically irish breads and potato pancakes are round doughs cut into quarters and cooked in a skillet, which is how the farl got its name.

The potato farl’s history is tied closely together with Irish soda bread (or soda farls) for a few important reasons. Ireland’s climate lends itself to growing softer wheats, which led to a popularity of baking breads without yeast, and hence frying up soda or potato breads in a pan:

In Ireland, ‘plain’ soda bread is as likely to be eaten as an accompaniment to a main meal (to soak up the gravy) as it’s likely to appear at breakfast. It comes in two main colors, brown and white, and two main types: cake and farl. People in the south of Ireland tend to make cake: people in Northern Ireland seem to like farl better – though both kinds appear in both North and South, sometimes under wildly differing names.

– From Peter’s Mum’s Soda Bread Recipe

But Ireland is known through the ages as a particularly poor country, and potatoes were a very economical food. ”About two-fifths of the population was solely reliant on this cheap crop for a number of historical reasons.” (Great Famine (Ireland) – Wikipedia)

Soda bread cooking in a heavy pot on the fire, from http://kitchenproject.com/history/IrishSodaBreads/

Soda bread cooking in a heavy pot on the fire, from http://kitchenproject.com/history/IrishSodaBreads/. Lucy’s great-great grandmother would have cooked in a similar fashion on a hearth on Clementine Drive in Belfast.

A poor country discovered that potatoes and milk made a nutritious enough meal to exist on and you could grow more potatoes per acre than any other crop. Soda bread was probably not made as much because of this reason.

– From The History of Irish Soda Bread

That began to change from potatoes to soda bread in the year of 1845. That year, a devastating blight wiped out Ireland’s potato crop and led to many years of what was known as the famous Great Famine. “During the famine approximately 1 million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland, causing the island’s population to fall by between 20% and 25%.” (Great Famine (Ireland) – Wikipedia)

Without potatoes, Ireland turned more strongly back to soda breads baked with more of Ireland’s soft wheats instead of potatoes. Both soda breads and potato farls, however, share their use of baking powder (bicarbonate of soda) as leavening agent instead of yeast.

While Lucy’s grandmother’s family didn’t emigrate until a hundred years after the Great Famine, the seeds of what was a mass emigration from Ireland may have been planted at that time.

Today, potatoes have revived and are back on the table. In the US, we are lucky that we can enjoy an abundance of many different kinds of potatoes year-round, and those of us who are Irish will remember our great love of, dependence on, and recovery from the blight of the great food that is the potato, delicious in many ways.

The recipe we are using to bring to school comes from The Guardian at http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/mar/14/how-to-make-potato-farls-back-to-basics. We’ll bring along a healthy slab of Irish butter just for extra decoration.

Cheers — and enjoy your culture and your food.  It’s why we’re all here!

Elizabeth Black, 1914, Belfast

Lucy’s great-great grandmother Elizabeth Black, in 1914 in Belfast, with great Aunt Nan to her left, and great grandpa Norman on her lap.  Elizabeth would have cooked potato farls on the hearth in there home on Clementine Drive.


Nations are not communities

A Peoples History of the United States

A People's History of the United States

I’m finally taking the time for a book I’ve been wanting (needing, really) to read for a long time. So rarely do I light on the cutting-edge of the latest books (witness Arthur C. Clarke…), but when the time is right for me, boy do I dive in.

In A People’s History of the United States, the venerable Howard Zinn sets up his groundbreaking approach — the reason the book’s title starts with “people” — right from the outset, in his retelling of the Columbus-Arawak genocide from the standpoint of the Arawak Indians. His fundamental viewpoint:

My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.

And as always, when I see the word “community” I ponder how we have digitally co-opted the concept, and whether successfully or not. Perhaps with Internet communities we go beyond just the two sides – conquerors and conquered. It strikes me that “thinking people” are provided via the Internet with all opportunity to not just choose one side or the other, but to populate all of the lands between the two poles. Indeed, it seems the whole purpose of the oft-contentious “comments thread” is to voice a counter-opinion to the “memory of the state.”

It almost makes it sound like — on the Internet at least — there is no nation at all. Or am I being too idealistic? Do nations and corporations, in the end, still control the telling of the “history of a family”?

It does make me wonder how the conquest of the “Americas” would go down in history if the Internet were around as it happened.

the acrobatic feat that parenting is

times magazine

Originally uploaded by moyalynne

it is *leanne’s birthday* — and she and i had this exhausting (yet now run-of-the-mill) email exchange about how to manage, in general, our lives:


on march 29 …..

you have a dentist appt at 8am

lucy’s due at c5 at 9:30am — which is a bit awkward since she usually goes down for a nap at 9am so maybe we can ask on thursday if we can bring her by at 8:45am or so before she gets nap-fussy.

so i’ll be dropoff person for lucy

i’m going to oakland at 2pm to pickup otivo’s colo servers with elizabeth. lucy is due to be picked up at 3:30

would you like to be pickup person for lucy?

then, next day, march 30, you could do dropoff alone and i’ll do pickup alone?

all of this makes me nervous.


so far we’ve all done really well.
i think we’ve discussed the rest but here goes with my memory:

monday evening
?see robert and dave?
gather and prepare bottles for tuesday morning; refrigerate

tuesday march 29
i leave by 8am from home for dr N
you pack the milk i pumped monday and a couple more bottles of formula and leave the same time and we walk partway together.
you have the most emotional farewell and good luck. you write that i will be there by three to feed lucy her afternoon meal.
i go immediately from dentist to work (do i drive to dentist?) and i pump at work @ 11a.
—> one of us or both calls to see how it’s going <–
i meet with guido and other guys at 1. i leave by 2. @ around 2:45~3, i drive into the parking garage, arrive @ c5, pick her up and take her and eat at otivo or i feed her there and then take her to otivo. you arrive back from colo at 4 or something at the same time as us; we all sit down and cry together.
@ home – wash and prep bottles for the next day

wednesday march 30
i pack the milk i pumped, plus a coupla bottles. drop lucy off by 830 or so and tell them i will feed lucy for her ~ 11a meal.
i call or they call me? or i show up at 11a, using the parking pass or a meter? lucy dines after hopefully having napped, and i race to work to be able to pump again at 1:30 for an afternoon of meetings.
you pick lucy up ~ 4? 5? and i come back to ?otivo? by 5? to meet you and lucy and for a snack before we take her home and feed solids.

whew; maybe we should just make it up instead of trying to plan.

what to do when i grow up

and green rocker

Originally uploaded by moyalynne

we were asked to speak on a gracenet panel next week on motherhood and work – and i quote:
“Does motherhood need to feel like martyrdom if a woman also wants a career in high tech?”

and i hardly feel i have the time or could concentrate or say anything of value besides “my brain is jello at home and at work” or do anything but just sit there in general dread on the verge of lucy melting down at seven and then experiencing said melting down and then leaving the room without a goodbye (the event starts at 6:30 – actually, tonight she didn’t even make it that long…).

anyway — the woman running it asked for a bio.
i thought as thoughtfully as i could, or so i thought, and i came up with this:
Moya’s been working for 14 years in a number of different ways in the software industry in the Bay Area, most recently creating technical documentation for SAP. In high school, Moya was labeled a “Renaissance Woman” by her English teacher. She guesses that if you’re going to be labeled, you might as well be labeled broadly, but lately she wonders what she wants to do when she grows up. This question burns even more ironically on her mind now that her daughter, Lucy, is here. Together with her wife Leanne, Moya’s weathering postpartum depression and learning the value of her new family.

i guess it wasn’t good enough (she is in PR after all…) and she instead printed this:
Moya Watson and Leanne Wahldal [ sic! ] decided to have a daughter, Lucy, even though besides being designated bottle washer Leanne also is chief scientist and CEO at Otivo, and Moya commutes every day to SAP, where she is a product manager. Lucy likes to keep late hours, so we’ll hear how the mothers manage.

so i think i scared leanne the other day when i told her i was so tired i was hallucinating (bugs crawling across the table, etc) and then launched into how airplanes were landing over my head on 280. this actually wound up making perfect sense; there was a news report; they were flying low. anyway………….. i must be channeling lucy in all things, because lucy tends to want to ‘latch on’ to the knots in the knotty pine kitchen table.

does that look serious to you?


Originally uploaded by moyalynne

i get up every night in the middle of the night; i can’t go back to sleep sometimes, like last night, because of all the stress and implication. i have to work extra hard and pay new childcare, insurance – we can’t afford to save for college and i can’t afford to buy comforts for myself —
yet what i get is that ‘there’s something in the mother’s milk’, ‘lucy looks like you because she’s so serious’ (looking serious was never a compliment as i was growing up), ‘you should go on antidepressants not just for yourself, but because your mood is affecting her’ — in other words, i’m damaging lucy??? sheesh – some people don’t know when to Be Quiet.
Do Over! i wish *i* could adopt lucy just like leanne, so i could get all my friends around me and a court to say and prove it that i am a good mother.

rough night turns into rough day

shes a strong one...

she's a strong one...

leanne is about an hour from landing back in SF; over two hours from returning home after nearly two days away – to see the gates in NYC.  i told her on the phone today that last night was one of the ‘worst nights of my life’.  she, too, had a hard time being away.  problem is, lucy took this week as the week to flip over in her swaddle, so we immediately put her in a sleep-sack, arms free, and she immediately forgot how to sleep, freaking out with her arms waving all over the place presumably whenever she wakes up.
i had already had only 3-4 hrs sleep the previous night, big rains, lucy&i dropping lw @ sfo in wee hours, and then lucy didn’t really nap in the new sleep sacks.  then she went to sleep fairly easily, out by 8p, but woke at 9p. pacifier; sleep again; awake by 9:30, had to pick up and rock and hold to return to sleep by 10p or so.  less than two hours later, the whole thing again – this time i had to nurse her; done and asleep (me) by 1a or so.  then @ 4:30a.m. – nursed over an hour; lucy then wide awake, alert, talking. me crying, tired, thinking things are miserable. the stress is so great that when i finally climb back into bed exhausted at 6a, cold and too awake from stress, and the chills in bed again similar to postpartum, and alone with lucy, and lucy acting up getting used to her new arrangements, i could not fall back to sleep.  eventually the sun rose and at 7:30 she was chatting and awake.  the day began, without glee, for me.
when she’s asleep – such as now – i feel like this is OK.  i feel calmer with myself and my impressions of myself as a mother (i say, pouring myself a glass of whiskey for maybe the third time in over a year) are of a capable person, able to handle difficulty with compassion and remain calm.  and then it happens, i’m exhausted, i’ve gotten less sleep in the past three nights combined than i used to insist on needing in a single night, i’m awake with lucy, totally stressed, crying.