Sixty years is a long time in one man’s life, but I’d be willing to bet that I was at least 10 years old before I equated the term “Arsh” with “Irish”. I’m 70 now and still a slow learner.
When I was a little feller on Blair Branch, the most important rite of spring was plowing up gardens and planting a crop of Arsh ‘taters. Of the 50 or so families who encompassed the threemile stretch of Blair Branch and perhaps a dozen other families who lived nearby off the main holler but had kids attending Blair Branch Grade School, there was not a single household in the 1950s that did not make some arrangements to plant and tend a ‘tater patch large enough to keep the spuds stored and then be fed for the next 12 months.
Of course our subsistence also depended on numerous other vegetable crops, but what we now know as Irish potatoes were as essential to basic nutrition as life itself way back then. We may have had some variety on the rest of the menu, but Blair Branchers and most other rural, mountain families had ‘taters, in one form or another, set on the table two or three times every day at mealtimes.
Many, if not most, families relied on one or two varieties of “certified” seed potatoes. We went to the closest neighborhood store and purchased 100-pound sacks of them and/or also kept an heirloom variety called “Irish cobblers” that we saved back from year to year.
My mom and several of her close relatives insisted that the “cobblers” tasted better than any others even though they grew somewhat smaller and didn’t yield as much as other varieties in terms of pounds per acre. Of course they also grew at least one main variety of certified seed just in case the Arsh cobblers didn’t make it.
Certified seed was mostly a throwback to the Irish potato famine of the 1840s that decimated the potato crops and caused over a million people in Europe to literally starve to death when the plants blighted and the crop failed. Well over another million Europeans immigrated to America in the mid- 19th century to escape the potato famine. The U.S. Department of Agriculture “certified” that certain seed potato producers grew plants that were blight free and guaranteed to produce the exact variety for which they were planted.
Well over 100 years after the famine, folks were still buying certified seed potatoes for fear of what might happen if their crops failed. Uncle Stevie Craft was partial to a variety called Kennebec but, instead of buying certified seed, he saved his back from year to year. He would tell my dad every spring that the only difference between his saved-seed Kennebecs and Dad’s certified Kennebecs was $15 on the hundred-pound sack.
Dad, however, as well as most other folks, was taking no chances even though none of them could actually remember a potato crop failure. Certified seed potatoes persist to this day even though I would bet big $$ that they are no better nor safer than some you have failed to use when you stored away your crop last September.
In addition to dominate Kennebecs, the other most popular variety on Blair Branch was Red Pontiacs. They were much rounder than the oblong Kennebecs and cobblers and some folks thought them tastier. A few other families grew russets, Idaho Bakers, Indiana Queens and probably a few others that do not immediately come to mind.
In the early 1990s, before they became a staple of every produce counter in the country, an old friend, the late Terry Collison, introduced me to a potato variety called Yukon Gold. I haven’t even considered growing any other variety since then because that’s how well we like them.
On the other hand, I did run over to Jennings’ Home Center in Berea and get 10 pounds of certified Yukon Gold seed potatoes because we ran out of last year’s crop before the end of January. If the good Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise, Andy and I will get them planted before you have read this column.
If all goes as planned we should harvest about 60 pounds of spuds; enough to get us through another year. However, 60 pounds of ‘taters wouldn’t have lasted our family one week during a winter on Blair Branch in the 1950s.