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Irish Boxty Potato Cakes and The Potato Famine: One Million To Remember

Updated on April 13, 2011

The Pogues - Old Pictures of the Famine

Irishman Making Boxty

Glen Hansard - In Irish- Our beautiful lost language

Peasant Food for your Family


My Irish grandmother made this recipe on a cast-iron pan over an open turf fire. Boxty (pronounced Bocshthy) is a potato recipe that originated in North Connaught and Southern Ulster. My family is from the Mayo and Roscommon counties in Ireland. These were a staple in Connaught household for centuries. Especially known as a man's favorite meal alongside black pudding, fresh eggs and hot tea. This old rhyme says it all:

Boxty on the griddle,

Boxty in the pan,

If you don't cook Boxty,

You'll never have your man.


The traditional Irish Boxty recipe from my grandmother's family is simple and delicious. Potato, onion, flour, salt, and butter are the ingredients. We don't mess with perfection in our house. Simple is better. The distinction of this potato pancake recipe is in the fine-grating of the spuds and the onion. If you have a food-processor, the prep will be quick and easy. The consistency should be smooth and mushy, not grated. If you grate the prayties by hand, expect it to take a while. Use the finest side of the grater. Don't take any shortcuts, or you end up with hash-browns, not Boxty. The potato mixture will quickly turn brown if you let it sit around too long. Fry your Boxty as soon as possible after grating.


Many Boxty recipes add an equal amount of leftover mashed potatoes and buttermilk. My grandmother's traditional recipe did not. The ingredients are simple, but the result is perfection. Please use whole butter for frying. Cast iron for frying is preferable. The aroma of a turf fire would be perfect, but we can't have everything. Enjoy!


This simple peasant food has cousins around the world. Almost every culture has their own version of the potato pancake if the potato was their starch-base in their diet historically. Our ancestors took the lowly potato and made these tasty dishes to feed their families. The potato was the staple in many diets. There are those who believe, including myself, that our genetic make-up will respond positively if we eat the foods of our forefathers. Of course, we also have to be as physically active as they were. So, eat the foods of your ancestors and see how your body responds. Usually, this consists of a small amount of meat and a larger portion of vegetables and starch.


Boxty is a simple, affordable meal that both children and adults will love. Children love to mix the potato mixture. You will find that you won't be able to make these fast enough to feed your familyT cooked, Boxty can be made, refrigerated, and reheated.


But, why do I mention the potato famine? The Great Hunger (in Irish: An Gorta Mor) was a potato famine in Ireland between 1845 - 1850. I know that this may seem like old news, but we can still learn lessons from the horrible events in our past.

The famine led to the death of 1 million people over the five year period. In my family's part of the country, 28% of the population died. Sometimes I wonder how my family survived. I suppose survivor's guilt is inbred in anyone whose ancestors lived. I wonder how they turned the starving away from the door. Did they drive them away? Did they become insular and selfish in their self-preservation? Did the anger toward the occupying power destroy them for generations?

The potato was the staple in the diet of the Irish peasants. Most of the land was used for grazing cattle by the English landlords. The cattle was then exported to England. What land was left was used by the Irish tenants to farm the potato crop for their own survival. During the famine, records show that exports increased from the country. When the potato blight destroyed the only food source, the landowners failed to help. This legacy of inaction, whether intentional or not, scarred the Irish-English relationship thereafter.

We in today's Western World should see this as a lesson. As in the Holocaust, inaction may illicit as much anger as action. When we fail to protect those under our responsibility, we are just as guilty as those who commit the crime. For example, parents who allow abuse of their children by their partners are as guilty of the crime themselves. Corporations who sacrifice safety for profit cannot use ignorance as a scapegoat. Politicians whose ambiition over-rides the good of the country sacrifice their constitutents.

I like to believe that we are all as strong as this plant. Any disease that comes our way will not hold us back forever. The potato is a lowly, plain, but incredibly tenacious plant. It grows in rocks. The worst soil is their home. But, when potatoes are harvested, they can satisfy the greatest hunger.

Boxty Ingredients:

  • 10 medium floury potatoes washed and peeled (Idaho or russet are preferable)
  • 1 medium onion washed and peeled (optional)
  • 8 oz. flour or as needed
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • butter for the pan


Directions:


  • Finely grate the potatoes using the smallest side of the grater.

  • The consistency should be smooth.

  • Finely grate the onion.

  • Drain the potato using a strainer or a dish-towel.

  • Add the onion. Mix.

  • Add the salt. Mix.

  • Add flour depending on the amount of water in the mixture.

  • The Boxty should not be dry and floury.

  • The consistency should be wet.

  • Heat your buttered pan over high heat.

  • Spoon a Boxty pancake into the pan. Flatten down for a thin cake.

  • Turn the heat down to medium high.

  • Fry on both sides until golden brown.

  • Serve hot off the griddle with butter and salt.

Options:

An equal amount of leftover mashed potato may be added with buttermilk or whole milk for a variation on the traditional recipe. If using mashed potato and milk, add baking powder for fluffy cakes.

Parsley, thinly sliced scallion or chives, garlic or other spices as desired may be added to the mixture.


Suggestions:


Hot, strong, black tea with whole milk and sugar should accompany the Boxty.


If you are the cook, expect to continue this process until all are satisfied.


Comments

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    • Silva Hayes profile image

      Silva Hayes 

      2 years ago from Spicewood, Texas

      Enjoyed your article! We have the same background as you. The "good old days" were not always so good for some people, were they? My mother made the most delicious boxty but we always called them potato patties. I still make them today, except only with leftover mashed potatoes. So delicious.

    • iskra1916 profile image

      iskra1916 

      8 years ago from Belfast, Ireland.

      Maith thu a chara!

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 

      9 years ago from East Coast, United States

      The people who starved to death during the potato famine were not merely neglecte. Potato blight hit some other European countries, countries that closed their ports and refused to export food - they chose to feed the people. The English hauled wheat, oats, barley, and livestock away under armed guard.

      While the Irish peasants starved, the wealthy ate fine.

      The people who left were the best, saved often by families pitching in to send them to American where they worked hard and sent money home so that their families were able to buy what little food was affordable.

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 

      9 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      I saw a book on the potato famine at work the other day, a memory jog that I never got around to reading it after seeing this hub many moons ago. Be assured it's now on the list for the next visit to the library.

    • Christoph Reilly profile image

      Christoph Reilly 

      10 years ago from St. Louis

      Hi Cailin! I love Boxty and make it on occaision. Sometimes I make quicker versions when in a hurry, but I love potatoes so I like 'em any way I can get 'em. My family came over during the famine, and being fanatically Irish like so many other Irish Americans, I have given the famine some study. It was well within Britains capabilities to save the dying. They had tons and tons of potatoes and other foodstuffs rotting on their docks and would not send them. This in spite of the fact that they were well aware of what was going on.

      Some landowners in Ireland tried to help but not many. Others were simply overwhelmed by the numbers. Mostly though, the British rulers (the Queen, et. al.) had the attitude "it's only the Irish" and were quite content to watch them die. I know it sounds harsh - and my apologies to our current English friends - but there it is.

      Life in America wasn't much better. The Irish were viewed as no better than dogs. The days of NINA (No Irish Need Apply) were set into motion. Phrases about the Irish - that we now consider cute and charming - were actually cutting insults. "Luck of the Irish" meant an Irishman must have been lucky to get that job, because it sure couldn't have been because he deserved it or was a hard worker or good at it. But I do prattle on....

      I suppose my point is, we are proud of our heritage. We didn't whine like so many do today. We worked our way up, and I, for one, love to experience the culture of Ireland, including Boxty (there...I brought it around!). Irish food is just now beginning to get some recognition. Tony Bourdain, when remarking on what is going on with the food in Ireland today, called it the next France. Thanks for this great example of a simple but delicious Irish peasant food! I shall try your recipe soon! - CR

    • SweetiePie profile image

      SweetiePie 

      10 years ago from Southern California, USA

      This sound like a great winter comfort food recipe.

    • Fadzo Chanakira profile image

      Fadzo Chanakira 

      10 years ago from L.A., California

      Great recipe and loved the history... thanks. I will have to experiment with the recipe so it can be vegan, but I love the tradition of it and the feel you built around the recipe based on your personal memories. A great hub

    • Cailin Gallagher profile imageAUTHOR

      Cailin Gallagher 

      10 years ago from New England

      Sally's Trove: Thank you for your empathetic comment.

      JamaGenee: Yes, over 1 million immigrated to the U.S. and England during the Famine. Unfortunately, many did not survie the "coffin ships" across the Atlantic. Across the world, famines have destroyed countries. The worst famine recorded was in the Bengal province of India in 1943. Over 4 million people starved to death.

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 

      10 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      Ah, the memories! Potato pancakes were one of the only two things my mother could make that were edible (banana nut bread was the other). I'm pretty sure she used leftover mashed potatoes, though. Grating raw potatoes would've been too much work.

      As for the Potato Famine, it boggles the mind that so many were left behind to starve by family and neighbors who had the means to leave, mostly to America.

    • Sally's Trove profile image

      Sherri 

      10 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      Cailin, awesome hub. You really touched my heartstrings in every way. From the recipe for the boxty (thanks for the pronounciation help!), to the history of the famine, to the videos, especially Sinead O'Connor.

      But here's where you really got me: *This simple peasant food has cousins around the world.* My mother makes the best potato latkes ever. They are very different from what you describe, but the work effort is the same. Each time she makes them, I am transported to her world when she was a child in Poland. And I know there is survivor guilt in my family over what happened during WWII. Like I said, heartstrings.

      Best regards, S.

    • Cailin Gallagher profile imageAUTHOR

      Cailin Gallagher 

      10 years ago from New England

      Thanks for your comments. Doghouse, I should have linked to your Irish hubs...didn't know you did them. I'll check now.

      Rochell Frank: Maybe a hub from you with your Mother in Law's German Pancakes? I'd love the recipe!

      CW: Rent the old Braveheart for some fun, fast Scots/English history. Remember Mary Queen of Scots. Great political history between the Catholic Church and the Church of England...King Henry etc. Great history, those Scots. We go to an amazing Scottish Highland Games Festival every hear in New Hampshire. My sister in law is Scots/Mayflower descent. Haggis and strong-man competitions. Truly fabulous!

    • In The Doghouse profile image

      In The Doghouse 

      10 years ago from California

      Great information, thanks... have linked to my Irish Hubs.

    • Decrescendo profile image

      Decrescendo 

      10 years ago

      Looks Great. Now I’m hungry

    • Constant Walker profile image

      Constant Walker 

      10 years ago from Springfield, Oregon

      This sounds interesting - the boxties, I mean.

      I have Scottish ancestry on my father's side, but have learned very little about Irish/Scottish history (except what I can catch on History Ch.) so it's always a treat to learn a little about my past. Thanks!

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 

      10 years ago from California Gold Country

      This sounds like the potato pancakes my German Mother-in-law made. My husband like to make them, too, but it make a lot of smoke in the house. He built a little grill our of a steel drum with a grill top. He uses compressed sawdust for fuel. Peat might be better ;-) but at least he can cook them outdoors.

    • Uninvited Writer profile image

      Susan Keeping 

      10 years ago from Kitchener, Ontario

      Great hub as usual :)

    • Chef Jeff profile image

      Chef Jeff 

      10 years ago from Universe, Milky Way, Outer Arm, Sol, Earth, Western Hemisphere, North America, Illinois, Chicago.

      A fascsinating hub with a great recipe and a bit of history. You are right that inaction can speak as loudly as action, and that doing nothing can lead to disasters which hang in the air for centuries to come.

      Thanks!

    • Bob Ewing profile image

      Bob Ewing 

      10 years ago from New Brunswick

      OK, this sounds like something I will have to try, thanks. The potato famine in Ireland needs to be remembered.

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