Syracuse Salt Potatoes
Updated: Jan 11
I was recently asked to name five people, dead or alive, that I would invite to a dinner party. I thought about it quickly and blurted out my answers. My deceased father and grandma, and three historical figures that made me feel sufficiently profound. It was a split second decision, but I was satisfied with my response. Cut to my bedroom later that night and I jump up from my sleep like an overdosing Mia Wallace being stabbed in the chest by John Travolta. "I forgot one!” I’d like to invite the guy that first looked at the “cockroach of the sea” and said, I think that would taste good boiled and dipped in warm butter. I bet that guy is a good time. Sorry Abe, you’re out.
There is a saying that desperation breeds ingenuity and I get that the hungry will eat whatever they can to survive, I grew up with SPAM on the menu, so I don’t mean to make light. I just appreciate the moxie of the person brave enough to make that first move. I am curious about other firsts too, like the nineteenth century Irish salt miner that unknowingly created a popular Central New York foodigenous when he decided to cook his lunch, a bag of small potatoes, in the salinized brine left over from mining. I mean imagine the courage required to look at a pool of wastewater and say fuck it, I’ll cook my lunch in that. Unfortunately, we will never know for sure the identity of that culinary trailblazer, but we do know that he was a trendsetter because his co-workers took notice and copied the spud cooking technique.
The salt potato is a regional side dish typically enjoyed in the summer when the new white potatoes are young. Preparation of this dish is quite simple, unpeeled white potatoes boiled in exceptionally salty water with one-part salt for every six parts water. The briny water has a higher boiling temperature which allows the starch to breakdown more and the skin crusts preventing the typical mashed potato effect. The result is a creamy interior with a salty crusted coating that is the perfect accompaniment for the local BBQ variant- Cornell Chicken or as a complentary accoutrement at one of the local clambakes.
Dropping a Lil' Historical Knowledge
Outside of New York State, Syracuse is perhaps best known for their college sports teams the Orange or as the answer to an obscure trivia question like “where was the first drive-in bank window installed”. But from the late 18th century to the early 20th century, it was recognized as the salt capital of United States earning it the unofficial nickname The Salt City. Years before it became the most polluted lake in the country, Onondaga Lake was the source of Syracuse’s salt production. The lake which is considered sacred by the native Onondaga people and the birthplace of the Iroquois Confederacy was taken from them by the United States following the Revolutionary War. Commercial salt production quickly followed as the lake’s briny springs were pumped into wells, purified and either boiled or left to evaporate until crystals were formed. According to the website exploring upstate, one worker using the boiling method could produce about 600 bushels a year at $1 a bushel, very lucrative for the 1800’s. Unfortunately, years of manufacturing waste and sewer water caused an end to production as the lake became too polluted. Clean up restoration started in the 70’s and while the lake has been open to fishing, continued cleanup is needed.
Where to get Salt Potatoes
For more than 100 years, Hinerwadel’s Grove of North Syracuse was a local institution until it closed in 2019. In 1914, John Hinerwadel, Sr. purchased a farm to host clambakes. Despite being landlocked and hundreds of miles from the ocean, he negotiated a steady supply of clams on ice to be shipped via train from the Chesapeake Bay every week. Hinerwadel’s survived Prohibition and his clam bakes became the hot spot on the weekend hosting families and fundraisers for decades. In the 1960’s, they added Salt Potatoes to the menu and began to sell them at the nearby market. Today, despite the clambake being closed, bags of Salt Potatoes (with the salt) continue to be sold in area markets and online. Another popular brand to order online is State Fair packed by Szawlowski Farms. Or check out the actual New York State Fair, COVID-19 depending, in August 20- September 6, 2021 and hit a concession stand dedicated to the salty treat.