I’m third generation American born: two parents in New York and three of four grandparents born in the greater NY area. It was my great grandparents then who came to “the next parish west” across the ocean. They left Ireland in the second half of the 19th century, in the period of diaspora that followed the potato famine. My Grandmother Josie ran away at sixteen to attend the Motormen’s Ball after her father forbid even. Even after she married the trolley conductor, he never forgave her for picking that Dutchman. He refused to let her in his house again, even when she returned with his first grandchild, a boy. So my Grandmother took what she had learned in her Irish tenement kitchen and added what her German mother-in-law was willing to share. But cooking wasn’t her first interest by any means. She preferred singing, dancing and playing the piano.
When I was growing up, my dad had steady work as a New York City fireman who had helped hold his mother and sisters together during the depression. (His dad had died when he was just a toddler.) When Dick was home for supper, we ate meat and potatoes and often shared the table with relatives. My mom roasted potatoes with onions and carrots in the winter and steamed them with butter and parsley in the spring. She baked and mashed them to go with steaks and chops. I loved all varieties except my brother’s favorite, the mashed, which we ate a lot. Richard was a picky eater and my mother was afraid he wouldn’t eat enough to grow up strong unless she gave him what he wanted.
When my mother was older, she began sharing stories from her childhood, or maybe that was when I started listening as I wasn’t so interested in the topic when I was little. She told me about how much she enjoyed visiting her grandmother’s house (the German mother-in-law) in Greenpoint, in her youth. She described going to that part of Brooklyn it going to the country because there was still farmland there. Where she grew up, in Astoria, had already given way to row houses, stores and factories back then. She remembered a chilly day when she and her older brother were left to visit and she was given permission to go out and explore with him.
In an open field near by, they watched boys toss potatoes into a open fire in field. (Guy Fawkes Day, close to Halloween, is a British Isles tradition with bonfires where potatoes in their jacket are cooked) They boys knocked the ashes off a potato that was done, pierced it with a stick to lift it up and handed the potato on a stick to her brother. He blew on it a lot, before offering her a share. She found the potato with its smoky warmth particularly delicious. She shared a picture of she and her brother in front of their grandmother’s house. That memory was sweet and clear, but it triggered another one, less so. In the depression, when these local lads had grown up, many were out of work and took to selling things on street corners. There were so many Irishmen with fire-baked potatoes in their jackets for sale, that the taters took on the nickname of Mickies.
After telling that story, I am inclined not to think about the Mickies more overstuffed American cousin, the fully-loaded baked potato but to appreciate the pleasure of a simple, straightforward oven baked potato with a crusty, crunchy, salty skin and a tender flesh that mashes to the touch of the fork and runs with rivulets of butter. Don’t even think of microwaving it! The taste and texture are entirely different.
Potatoes Baked in their Jackets
A meal on its own from simpler days or a filling side
-2 russet potatoes
-salted butter to taste
-optional green onions or chives
-Select even sized brown-skinned potatoes without green spots or sprouting eyes.
-Preheat oven to 375.
-Scrub the potatoes with a brush, rinse, pat off any dripping water but leave damp.
-Roll in coarse salt. You will get a crisp and crunchy crust to the potato.
-Prick deeply with the tines of fork (to keep the water turned to steam from exploding.) Bake for an hour, check by pressing with a potholder. If the potato gives to your touch, it’s ready to take out of the oven.
-Prick each potato deeply and closely, in a line along the top of the potato. Disturbing as little of the salt crystals as possible, push in each side of the potato from below the line, splitting it open the long way.
-Place a pat of butter. If you have and like chopped chives or green onions, sprinkle them over the butter.