My grandfather, James Sweeney, who was two generations removed from Ireland, continued to honor some of his ancestors' traditions throughout his life. One was planting potatoes on Good Friday.
In researching the reason why Good Friday was chosen, I learned that, according to the Farmers’ Almanac, the Irish planted potatoes on that day because in the 1600s, when potatoes began to arrive in Europe, citizens were suspicious of the tubers and believed they might be evil. Before they planted the potatoes, the Irish first sprinkled Holy Water on their gardens, the Farmers' Almanac said.
I don’t know if “Grandad,” as my siblings and I called my mother's father, planted the potatoes on Good Friday for that reason. I do know that if the ground was thawed by that day, he pulled the old one-row planter from its spot at the edge of the tree grove and hooked it to the 3010 John Deere tractor. When he grew older and was unable to do the job himself, my dad, Adrian Bailey, (also proud of his Irish roots) put aside his field work to help him plant the potatoes.
After my grandpa died, my dad carried out the Good Friday planting tradition. One of my siblings or I helped him, dropping potatoes into the hopper while sitting on the planter’s metal seat.
I suspect the combination of being farmers and Irish probably was the reason that my dad and grandfather planted enough potatoes not only to keep our families in the tubers for a year, but also so they had plenty to share with friends and neighbors.
The biggest crop I remember picking – we did it by hand – was when we filled 50 hundred-pound burlap bags with red potatoes. That year, my dad filled the back of his pickup truck with bags and donated them to a local charity, and we still had a bounty of potatoes for my mom to make for meals.
Because we had a plentiful supply of potatoes on hand, we ate them twice a day, seven days a week. My mom served them in a variety of ways; as Sam says in "Lord of the Rings:" “Boil them, mash them, stick them in a stew.” She made the leftovers into potato patties.
My family and I continue the potato-eating tradition, but using the 2021 cooking styles of air frying or oven roasting, in addition to mashing and baking. We don’t eat them twice a day, but they're on our menu enough that it wouldn’t surprise anyone that I grew up in a farm family that's proud of its Irish heritage.
This year, my family plans to plant our potatoes as close to Good Friday as possible so we can carry on the family tradition. Although I’m not worried about evil spirits, I think planting them on Good Friday, if it’s an option, makes sense because an earlier start to the growing season, at least in theory, means that we'll be eating them in time for our July 4th celebration.
If we have new potatoes for the Fourth, that will be in keeping with another family tradition. My grandpa seldom failed to bring butter-covered potatoes, ranging in size from large marbles to ping pong balls, for our Fourth dinner. We had to hold back our smiles some years when the potatoes had grown to knuckle-sized, and he lamented that they were “too big.”
For the past several years, when potato planting was delayed because the garden ground was frozen and under several feet of snow on Good Friday, or it’s been excessively wet in the spring, our first digging has been closer to mid-July than the Fourth.
If all goes well with the growing season and they don’t get hit with an April freeze, we should reverse that trend this year. I hope that’s the case and, if so, I will be complaining on the Fourth that the potatoes are too big.
At the worst, planting early in the season will result in re-planting. It will be disappointing but, from a financial perspective, it'll be small potatoes.
Ann Bailey is a Grand Forks Herald columnist who writes a personal column twice per month.