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The Ever-Mysterious Christmas Potato Candy

So, Here’s What We Know about Potato Candy

  • It’s made from real potatoes.
  • It doesn’t taste like potatoes.
  • It tastes like candy.
  • It’s a favorite Christmas candy in Appalachia.
  • It’s good all year.
  • Its origin is a mystery. Shrouded in false claims.

Before the Mystery of Potato Candy Came The Mystery of the Potato

Potato Seed Package

“You say the potatoe is a native of the US. I presume you speak of the Irish potatoe. I have enquired much into this question, & think I can assure you that plant is not a native of N. America. it came from Ireland” – Thomas Jefferson

The mystery of potato candy starts with the mystery of potatoes. What are they? And where ae they from?  Most people think Germany, Ireland, England…possibly? Actually, potatoes are from the Andeas where they were domesticated roughly 8,000 years ago. How did they reach North America?

This aspect of the potato story is confusing – so buckle-up! Some say the Spanish introduced potatoes to Europe in the mid-1500s. Others say Sir Walter Raleigh introduced potatoes to Ireland in 1589 where locals celebrated them, as they were easier to grow than wheat and barley.

Then, the thinking goes, the first potatoes arrived in North America with settlers in Jamestown in the 1600s, although others say the potato arrived via travelers from Bermuda. Don’t ask, especially since researchers at the Natural History Museum of Utah say potatoes originated in, yes, Utah. Only, these potatoes are not the same species of potato as the Andean potato which, all seem to agree, is the parent to all potatoes.


What about Yams? And Sweet Potatoes?

If you’re truly bold, you might be wondering about sweet potatoes which, as it happens, appear in an especially toothsome version of potato candy. Neither yams nor sweet potatoes are actually what we enjoy in, say, mashed potatoes. Here’s the difference:

Sweet Potato Plant, Mark Catesby approximately 1700s

Sweet Potatoes: A member of the morning glory family, these tubers are native to tropical South America and been eaten for 5000-plus years. Polynesian travelers carried these delicious-whatever-they-are from South America to Polynesia. Somewhere along the way, Columbus encountered them and brought them back to Spain. In 1648 or so they showed up in Virginia and have been here ever since.

Yams: Yes, these are tuber vegetables, but these are yellow, starchy, with a rough, brown exterior and can grow up to 45 feet long. Native to Africa and Asia, they arrived on ships carrying enslaved Africans during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Most Americans working in grocery produce departments and even famers markets don’t know the yams they’re selling are, in fact, sweet potatoes.

Back to Potato Candy…

Naturally, the origin story of potato candy is as convoluted as the origin story of the potatos. Some experts say that the potato candy originated in Germany, France, Ireland, Scandinavia, Russia or any place where potatoes were popular. It was in these places, so say these experts, that where, say the experts, the potato originated.

Maybe – but according to one article, published in 1918, potato candy originated in Texas. The author states that the United States Food Administration confirmed that “candy makers have succeeded in turning the good old potato to account as a sweet meat,” which “tasted like coconut but had an additional quality not unlike brittle only more delicate than brittle.”

Other iterations appeared around that time. At some unknowable time (likely the early 1900s), peanut butter became a standard in potato candy. In Kansas, 1908, folks were adding walnuts, while, in 1905 in Pennsylvania Kenecht’s Novelty Store advertised boxes of potato candy for Easter. In Boston, in the 1920s, folks were adding coconut to their own invention -Coconut Potato Candy, so-named “Needhams” in Maine.

The Certain Conclusion

No matter – none of this mixed-up history changes the fact that potato candy is an Appalachian Christmas favorite. Residents grew and ate and cooked with potatoes for generations and most certainly preferred their readily-available, inexpensive, and oh-so-delicious potato candy?


Potato Candy: The Recipes

 Yes! You can buy potato candy from True Treats. You order – we’ll ship. But, you can always make it yourself. Either way, here are a few recipes you might enjoy:

Potato Candy – Oakland Tribune, 1937

Potato Candy Recipe – Western Herald, Kansas 1908

Oh – and don’t forget the chocolate and coconut!

“Potato Cocoanut Candy”

  • 1 medium sized potato
  • 2 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar
  • 2 cups shredded coconut
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • Chocolate.
  • Boil or bake potato until well done, and force through a coarse sieve or a potato ricer. There should be half a cup of potato. To this add sugar, cocoanut, and vanilla, working together until well mixed. Press one inch thick into small bread pan, and spread top with a thin layer of melted bitter chocolate or sweet chocolate. When chocolate is firm, cut in small squares. This can be varied by using nuts or fruits instead of cocoanut.”
    The Candy Cook Book, Alice Bradley [Little, Brown, and Company:Boston] 1929 (p. 29-30)