Tastes of the Region #7: Salt Potatoes

It's fascinating how something as simple as a locally prominent food item can tell a story about the history and character of a people. When I glance back through the previous articles in this series of "Tastes of the Region," such as Grape Pie, Wings and Weck, Brozetti's Polish Pizza and Spiedies, I can begin to see the sketch of a region emerge. Various ethnic groups, each with their own tradition of cuisine, met in this area. Many of their dishes are lost amongst their descendents, but others remain and still others are created out of the new environment; Brozzetti's polish pizza in Johnson City, for example, is a unique mix of an Italian traditional food made by a bunch of Polacks for whom pizza was a purely theoretical concept. The result is magic that can only be considered pizza in a purely technical sense, for it tastes nothing like Italian pizza . These new dishes often show a deep sense of pragmatism: buffalo wings were made of those little bits of the chicken that nobody could figure out what to do with and grape pie is made of the Concord grapes that are omnipresent in the Finger Lakes.

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:

Salt Potatoes
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


Joe said...

You know brozzetti's isn't polish pizza, the brozzetti's are straight up and down italian. The pizza they make doesn't taste at all like polish pizza; I said that it was polish people who were prominently the customers of broz for the last 60 years.

Natalie said...

Is Brozzetti their real last name?

Joe said...

Just go to the link that's included in the article to the Press and Fun bulletin and any of the Broz misconceptions will be cleared.

went to school with the brozetti's said...

Brozetti is their real name LOL and the pizza is WONDERFUL! I was lucky enough to have the youngest Brozetti in my class. so we had pizza at all the school parties!

Polacks said...

If you are going to use Polacks why not substitute greaseball for Italian.

Natalie said...

Polack is a word only used to mean Polish people, and while it's true that it can be pejorative, 'greaseball' can refer to a greasy person regardless of their ethnic heritage.

Just sayin'.

Ivar said...

I bet ya'll have some good swedish meatballs around there, too.

Edie said...

Is it not wonderful that we have such a mix of races in North America. It gives us such a diversity of food, cultures and ideas. I refer to my son in law as a "puke" as he is 1/2 Ukrainian and 1/2 Polish. It is done in good fun. Love their Ukrainian food!

Polish Braveheart said...

Instead of "greaseball," you could try to get away with "Seech," "Guinea," "Wop," "Dago," and "Goodfella."

Jesse said...

Having grown up in a town largely populated by folks of Polish, Solvak, Ukranian and Lithuanian descent, I can say that all of the Poles I met referred to themselves as Polacks (I am of Slovak descent myself)- it was a term that, in my experience, has lost it's edge in all but the most nasty uses and has become more of a light-hearted, friendly-teasing term. Offense was meant to no-one.

Greaseball is a pejorative term in that its by its nature negative (and Natalie, I think it's a term for Italians, not just greasy people), same goes with Guinea, Wop, Dago, etc. With that said, I'm also part Italian (though that doesn't come up in a town full of Hanyacks) and have been referred to as a Guinea by my half-brother (we share the Slovak side) and others all my life without any offense intended or taken.

Many of these terms, even stronger ones, hold their power within their context. These essays celebrate ethnic food and ethnic community, I think that few would mistake the light hearted tone for an attack. If they did, it was not intended and perhaps they're looking a bit too hard to get angry.

Lisa said...

So, Pat and I are cooking salt potatoes for a group of friends out here in Indiana and we have to look up the ratio of salt to potatoes. Google "salt potatoes". This is #4 on the results. Pat sees it and asks hey, isn't that the blog by that Jesse kid you knew in college?


deerjohn said...

My dad used to grow an acre or two of potatoes each year, and I would always volunteer to help him harvest them. He always left the small ones-would not sell them-so I would pick them up after. Kept me in potatoes all winter.
BTW Hinerwadl's in Syracuse packages and sells salt potatoes including the salt. Just mix with water and boil.