This edition of Tastes of Region features a food that meets all of these qualities and is a staple of mid-summer activities in Central New York: the Salt Potato. Growing up, I never realized that salt potatoes were not as common around the country as fried dough or Italian Ice. All of these foods I associated with summer: picnics, barbeques and especially fairs and festivals. My co-editor here at York Staters, Natalie, puts all of these foods (as well as pretty much everything fried) into the category of "State Fair Foods." I guess you can forgiver her, she did grow up in Syracuse.
However, the salt potato is not a widespread food, but is a regional dish centered upon the city of Syracuse. For those who have not enjoyed the Salt Potato it is, simply, a very small ("baby") potato that has been boiled in a salt brine and then covered in melted butter. They are absolutely delicious, and, like most Upstate foods, not very good for you.
Syracuse is famous for its salt mines and is today home to the Salt Museum, which tells the story of the salt potato:
"In the 1700s & 1800s, perhaps even earlier, this Salt plant produced almost all of the nations salt. Add the salt production to the Erie Canal and you can see what a prosperous location Syracuse was during that time. Water taken from the Onondaga Lake was boiled down, or set out in the sun for evaporation in huge bowls. As most of the workers were Irish they brought along their potatoes for their meals and would place the potatoes in the boiling vats to cook giving you the famous salt potatoes. Syracuse is well known for its salt potatoes to this day! (Nowadays all they are, are very small potatoes boiled whole with the skins on in very salty water. 4 lbs potatoes to 1 lb of salt). Eat these dipped in melted butter and you have a great treat. By the 1870s this way of making salt was obsolete and the factory folded. "
The Upstate food saga unfolds once again: an ethnic group takes their traditional foods with them to America and finds them subtely changed to adapted to the new environment. Subsquently, other peoples in the area recognize the pragmatism and deliciousness of one of the dishes and adopt it. The fact that only tiny potatoes are used adds to the thrifty nature of the dish; when I worked at an Upstate vegetable farm, we would pick potatoes, seaching for the biggest ones. The tiny ones (of which there were many) would have been left lying in the field except that the farmer knew he could sell them for salt potatoes. This same pragmatic, "use what you have on hand", of the age can still be seen in the hardy cobblestone buildings that dot Western New York and in unique structures like the Johnson City Pagoda. Perhaps echoes of this old philosophy inspired the two young women in Geneseo who built their own yurt.
The following recipie for Salt Potatoes is by Alton Brown of the Food Network and he calls them "Perfect Fingerling Potatoes." No credit is given to enterprising Central New Yorkers:
1 1/4 pounds kosher or rock salt
2 quarts water
2 pounds small fingerling potatoes, cleaned
4 tablespoons butter, optional
Freshly ground black pepper, optional
1 tablespoon freshly chopped chives, optional
In a large pot, combine the salt, water, and potatoes and bring to a boil. Cook until the potatoes are fork-tender, approximately 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from the pot to a cooling rack and let stand for 5 to 7 minutes. Serve as is or with butter, pepper, or chives.
However, most experts suggest buying pre-packaged potatoes that only need to be boiled, such as Hinderwadel's. For those who live outside the region and are looking to order some, check Taste of CNY. I hope you enjoy the tastes of our region!
-Posted by Jesse