It was a love affairthe world thought would never end — but what was once a feast is becoming a famine.
No, not that famine.
But all too true, the Irish appetite for potatoes is in a free-fall, according to just-released farm reports. And no matter how you slice them, boil them, bake them, mash them, or French fry them — the spuds are duds with their onetime best customers on the Emerald Isle.
Shoppers in the Republic of Ireland have cut their potato purchases by more than 10 percent in the last quarter and are spending almost 20 percent less than they were a year ago, according to market research firm TNS.
Lorcan Bourke, business analyst at the horticulture division of the Irish Food Board, told The Grocer magazine that shoppers were increasingly choosing rice and pasta, which they perceived as easier to cook than potatoes.
"It seems unreal," said a grocer in Donegal who had bins filled with ready-to-whatever taters. "When my Da' owned the place, we'd sell a fresh lot every day. But now, you've got..."
The British, of course. And that means things are getting ugly.
Just last week, an enraged group of Irish farmers stormed a meeting of Ireland's giant supermarket chain Tesco's, demanding that the retailer stop selling British potatoes at its Irish stores.
Around 30 potato growers burst into a meeting at a County Meath hotel attended by Tesco chief executive Sir Terry Leahy and 200 managers. The farmers brandished bags of imported "Desiree" potatoes, which they claimed are displacing Irish potatoes on Tesco shelves around the country.
Irish Farmers' Association president Padraig Walshe was boiling mad: "Growers cannot stay in business because of Tesco's ruthless pursuit of profit and market share. The persistent pressure on the price paid to the producer will inevitably lead to thousands of job losses and will put Irish producers of local, fresh produce out of business."
The potatoes being sold were identical to Irish "roosters," that were plentiful in the Republic at this time, and there was no need for them to be imported, he added.
Police were called to the scene, but the protesters agreed to leave peacefully.
Of course, the nation's agriculture experts say the shift in Irish eating habits was hurting sales of British potatoes, too — a fact that did not rile the Irish farmers one bit.
"Don't these people know anything about Irish history and the importance of potatoes," asked a fit-to-be-fried Tesco protester.
Indeed, there's plenty of truth in that.
The Irish government recently designated May 17, 2009 as the first National Famine Memorial Day. On that day, Irish people throughout the world remembered and honored the victims of Ireland's Great Hunger – which to this day remains one of the most lethal famines of the modern era.
Out of a population of eight-and-a-half million — which had grown and flourished because of the abundant Irish potato's remarkable nutritional value — over one million people died, and approximately two million people emigrated between 1845 and 1851. Ireland was changed forever.
The British government chose not to use the resources of its vast and wealthy empire to prevent suffering and starvation (Ireland was reluctantly part of Britain since 1800.) And though part of history now, it may as well have happened yesterday for many Irish. Especially farming families.
An inscription on a memorial in Skibbereen, County Cork, is typical of many. It reads:
"A million a decade of human wrecks. Corpses lying in fever sheds. Corpses huddled on floundering decks, and shroudless dead on their rocky beds. Nerve and muscle and heart and brain, lost to Ireland — lost in vain."
So, where were we? Let's fast-forward to 2009. Obviously, healthy and delicious potatoes grow again in Ireland's lush farmlands. Although thousands of tons of potatoes are exported, there are still plenty in Irish restaurants and on Irish dinner tables. But the trending is clear: Rice and pasta, perhaps because they are faster to prepare, are replacing the beloved spud.
As if there aren't enough ironies in all this, the same blight that caused the Irish potato crop to fail and trigger the Great Hunger is now spreading throughout the United States — which IrishCentral was the first to report.
Officially called "late blight," it is ravaging farms and gardens throughout the Northeast. There is no treatment at this time, and agriculture officials have been able to do little but total the damages. Late blight is moving fast up the agenda of federal officials now that the news is being reported by major publications and the spread seems unstoppable.
It seems that the humble potato always manages to stay in the news.