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.

Oh give me a home where the bioswale roams …

On Wednesday last week, I joined the Sustainability Walking Tour led by Larry Morgan at SAP Labs Palo Alto.  Larry toured us through a couple of the buildings on campus, pointing out special sustainable features inside and out.

SAP Labs in Palo Alto is located on land shared by Stanford, and SAP worked closely with Stanford in addition to other prominent local giants in the thought- and technology-leadership space to rig up some super cool sustainability features in our buildings.

Sustainability is a topic close to our hearts, ever more so since we’ve created a family upon this earth. Check out the below for a look at how corporations can — and should — lead the charge in pioneering sustainable technologies, and give us a few cool new vocabulary words while they’re at it:

Starving Our Future — Jamie Oliver at TED

I wish for everyone to help create a strong, sustainable movement to educate every child about food, inspire families to cook again and empower people everywhere to fight obesity.
– Jamie Oliver, TED2010

Wie ihr es immer dreht und wie ihr’s immer schiebt
Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral.
Erst muß es möglich sein auch armen Leuten
Vom großen Brotlaib sich ihr Teil zu schneiden.
– Bertolt Brecht, The Threepenny Opera, 1928

TED prize-winner Jamie Oliver is mad about American obesity, and shared it freely with the audience at TED yesterday:

At one point in this impassioned talk largely about (re-)teaching kids about food, he shows a clip of school children who are totally baffled by these objects — common vegetables — that Oliver has brought into their class.

The problem is there are no food-knowledgeable people in the school system, he says, and he cites that if we really investigated what we fed kids at school, we’d find every government in the world guilty of child abuse.

Amongst his chronicles of the many terrible health affects of our country’s mainstream food, Oliver also offers hope — because this is a curable issue. “If I could come up here today with a cure for AIDS or cancer, you’d be fighting and scrambling to get to me. All this bad news is preventable — very very preventable.”

Real tangible change can be had, he says, from junk to fresh food: “six and a half grand per school — that’s all it takes.”

What is $6500 to the $6K ticket-holders in the TED audience? (With all respect to TED that we can watch the proceedings for free online).

Now — what is $6500 to schools faced immediately with $113 million dollars in cuts? It’s more than a luxury — it’s an impossibility.

And what is a school without well-nourished bodies and the minds they could support? We do nothing less than starve our future by malnourishing our children.

It’s a dizzying rollercoaster ride — from Oliver’s deadly iteration of the current situation to the hope that this is curable — to the tragedy of a rich nation preventing to fulfill this hope, and somehow, back to the hope that this is solvable. “It’s the future; it’s the only way,” says Oliver.

The Perils of the Long Tail, or How I Singlehandedly Started the Jicama Allergy Rumor

It’s come to my attention that my top-visited post is not my daring stand back at Charla Bansley, nor my complete wraps of various Web 2.0 conferences, nor even my frank socialization of flight anxiety. No, it’s my random post about Jicama.

It’s not even a post about Jicama, but about a vague attempt at isolating the source of a mysterious and recurrent allergic reaction by listing Entirely Everything I Ate That Day. It was also a long time ago. And it was via blog import from an old blog, that in fact used to be private. And yet, that single post “could I be allergic to JICAMA?” gets views EVERY DAY.

Sure enough, I ventured to check on Google, entering ‘jicama’ and  ‘allergy,’ and I turn up FOURTH.

Please take note of this cautionary tale about the beloved “Long Tail.” When two words appear SO infrequently on the same page together in the Whole Wide World of Web (and mostly accidentally) such that my random hypersensitive rave about what food I could possibly be allergic to shows up top-tanked, it’s a rumor, not a fact – but one that I fear has substantiated many a “jicama allergy.” (There, I did it again.)

Just for the record books, to be clear, let me come out about this now: I am not aware of any kind of allergy to Jicama and mean the delicious crispy juicy root no discredit.

Now that you’re here anyway, I welcome you to take a look around at my other random musings — or run along to the other top-ranked results. Either way, good luck with your mystery allergies! (I never have figured mine out).


‘nutty’ has arrived!’

Originally uploaded by moyalynne

Oh! TCHO! Just like Blue Bottle Coffee, you are ruining me for all the others; you are killing me quite nicely. I received your shipment of “Nutty” today. At once, all other chocolates lapse from my mind as mere impostors — and that is a tall order.

Let me try to repeat what happened with me when I uncorked “Nutty” today:

  • (tears open unobtrusive brown paper wrapper,) MMM, smells good
  • (places square in mouth,) Smooth texture; calm silky chocolate (at first!)
  • (chews chocolate,) Wow — powerful flavor. Nutty? I don’t taste nutty. I taste — wait a minute! — An onslaught of coffee (is that Blue Bottle?) — strikes my tongue, fills my head, removes all traces of worry or care in the world — In The World!
  • (swallows,) Kazaam — I Must Always Eat This Chocolate
  • (thoughts of peanut butter well up briefly but are overcome by aroma of coffee,) I will have more — but I must wait, briefly, to assimilate this experience —
  • (lingers…,) Ahh, I taste this chocolate for a loooong time after chewing and swallowing. This is a reallllly long finish.
  • (after the finish…,) Nutty — oh, Nutty? Ahh — yes, maybe — minutes later! I Still Taste the Chocolate — is that a Nutty aftertaste? aha. aha… more, please.

more …

heroes at my table

heroes at my table

there is such a fogstorm in the city today. it is grey and windy; it has swallowed us all up. mistakenly, sometimes i say how beautiful it is to tourists who only have a fog day to experience the golden gate bridge. most people who go to the bridge for the first time would prefer to see it in its entirety, and i guess i can understand that.

i love the fog. the fog is alive; it creeps down in the carpet over the hills, turns twin peaks into water, is gorgeous from far away, and occasionally engulfs the previous understanding of the day. perfect for when you want to sleep till four, and don’t want to feel disoriented when you finally go out into the day. difficult for tourists.

and alas, i missed the ferry plaza farmer’s market today; i had wanted to see jessica prentice on stinging nettles. but the ferryplazafarmersmarket will be there still next weekend, and we are lucky. leanne sent along a wonderful newsletter from a place called two small farms, in which they sang the praises of organic milk, particularly straus. i feel so fortunate we can choose local, organic foods.

the days i ride the train, i usually take the paper along and read things that make me glad, or more often, upset. then, i am unusually chatty about current events at the end of the day, and leanne is quite tolerant. the other day, i came home demanding to know why it was so important that companies continue to turn growth year after year, and wasn’t that not going to be sustainable in the long run.

that’s quite tame in comparison to what democracy now does to me. for those days when i do drive, and i take my time enough to leave near nine and have a little more road to myself, and for when i’m feeling strong enough for it, i tune in to amy goodman and try to feel energized rather than demoralized by all the violations of social justice in the world, usually in the name of democracy and usually by the united states. yesterday, i was thusly blown away by the segment in which they discussed “U.S. Threatens to Withhold AIDS Drugs from African Countries That Bar Genetically Engineered Foods”, amongst other things. food sustainability, “food sovereignty”, preservation of genetic diversity all seem so crucial to our continued existence, but corporate control, transgressions, and greed just keep pushing and pushing and winning, it seems. against the giants on this playing field — monsanto, dow, novartis, dupont — and bayer, lovely bayer — what can one person do?

sometimes, i’m just relieved to crawl right back home under the fog bank. certainly, every evening i come home to san francisco, i am relieved to be living in this city. and sometimes, sometimes there are positive things that happen, that make it all worthwhile. 90-year-olds and babies together in the streets after the bombing starts; amy goodman working to bring the information; ruth ozeki, barbara kingsolver; the center for food safety; rainbow grocery; jardiniere… ; all the local, organic farmers gardeners and otherwise foodmakers that bring organic foods every weekend to the ferry plaza… the heroes at my table. and the fog, the lovely fog, thrown in just to keep things beautiful.

and these days, after all, it seems like the best things that can happen are those where exactly one person does make all the difference. i only need to look at one of my favorite heroes, todd smith, to remember that. thank you for always helping me remember that, todd.

no sooner had i hit the ‘post’ button than we had an earthquake. in my memory, it was actually perfectly timed to hitting “post and publish”. it got me up to the doorway… a jolt; they are saying near santa rosa. this is when the san francisco a.m. radio heroes come to the rescue. only i seem to remember them keeping callers on much longer; all night long. now, they just sprinkle updates into the sports, financial news, traffic, business as usual… perhaps this is just not as big as those other times i remember. but i do remember… oh boy i do.

eating well x2

i feel so lucky that we have so many local, organic choices, particularly if we want to try to grow some little human inside our bodies.

sometimes, it can be so overwhelming to try to eat the “right things.” i went to the corner store and bought an odwalla because i was thirsty (echinacea) and then didn’t like the taste today for some reason, so i left it by the garbage garbage can. while the clothes were in the washer, i wound up after a walk at the whole foods down at fillmore, where, since i was still thirsty, i searched for a different odwalla. i was thinking of the ginseng, but then reading the label, it said ‘seek advice of your practitioner if you are lactating or pregnant’ (like i’m going to get on my cell phone, from the store, and patch a call straight through to my doctor — “i’m considering drinking this beverage?” — “ok, we’ll connect you to her *right away*”); that scared me off, so i bought a femme vitale instead, thinking that certainly wouldn’t bear any harm to the fetus or the breast milk. i then went back and changed the clothes into the dryer and started to drink my drink and read the label, and saw the same print, albeit in tinier font, on the bottle! probably the mah dong herb or whatever was in there. so then i started to think about spontaneous abortions and, mad at odwalla, i stopped drinking it and threw it into the trash this time. i’m guessing now that even the wellness had that warning on it, but later when i walked by the corner trash can, i was nonetheless happy to see at least that someone had taken the rest of the wellness echinacea drink. sheesh, we need to know _everything_!

i’m glad that in san francisco we have a lot of local, organic choices that help make it easy for us.  leanne signed up for the weekly email letter from http://www.twosmallfarms.com … in this week’s newsletter is some good information about organic milk and which brands are the best.  good pointer to straus: