Okay Ladies, Let’s Roll
Every year, the women of the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians (LAOH) in Philly make a ton of Irish potatoes.
And in one case, we’re talking literally here. Two thousand pounds of sugary, cinnamon-dusted candy that’s so sweet it makes your teeth hurt and weighs enough to balance a giant scale with a VW Beetle on the other side.
And last weekend, I was rolling balls with the ladies of Divisions 1 (Daughters of Erin, Center City) and 87 (Our Lady of Knock, Port Richmond) at AOH Div. 87’s Hall in Port Richmond, trying to help them reach their appointed tonnage. Just so you know, I’m not trying to be cute—“rolling balls” is the official terminology of Irish potato production in Philadelphia, where the candies originated. At least, that’s what I garnered sitting at a table with six LAOHers whose hands were a blur of activity.
“You gotta keep your balls small,” advised Ellie Zimmerman as she took a pinch of “dough” and started rolling it in her palm. “Or else you’ll get in trouble.”
What kind of trouble I found out rather quickly, when Donna Donnelly of Bridesburg, apparently head of the LAOH Irish Potato Rolling Weights and Measures department, got into it playfully with my table mate, Anne Marie Carr-Hanson. “Ladies,” she announced, after Anne Marie turned in an Irish potato that Donna thought was the size of a Quarter-Pounder, “we’re making our balls too big here. Some people are only going to get six Irish potatoes to the pound.” She hoisted another one from the filled aluminum trays that half a dozen runners were carrying to her from the tables. “We could feed a family of four on this!”
Anne Marie stared at her deadpan, then quickly popped the offending Irish potato in her mouth. “That’s what we do with the big ones,” she explained. “Or else we hide them from Donna.”
“We call her the ‘ball Nazi,’” piped up Ellie Zimmerman with a laugh.
Not only is it all in good fun, but it’s all in a good cause. These women, who often take whole-day shifts, produced enough Irish potatoes last year to give away $5,000 to charity. This year, they hope to earn even more for their ton of candy, which they sell—and by now, have sold out—for only $5 a pound.
“We give money to places like Providence House, which is a shelter for abused families, and the Philadelphia Veteran’s Multi-Service Center,” explained Maria Gallagher, president of LAOH Div. 87. “The rest we give away in smaller amounts, $100 here, $100 there, usually to special projects that come from the ladies who spend so much time here. How can you say no to people who come out two or three days to do this?”
Gallagher herself has been in the seasonal Irish potato business for a decade. She and Donnelly purchase the raw materials from Shamrock Foods (yes, that confectioners’ sugar, coconut, and cream cheese are 100% Irish-American), then combine all the ingredients in an industrial mixer that was donated anonymously. It lives in a small shed, built specially for it by Home Depot, next to the AOH Hall. It’s not heated, so “fold in ingredients” is one of the more uncomfortable directions in the LAOH recipe.
Divisions 1 and 87 aren’t the only LAOHs in the Delaware Valley rolling candy for charity in the weeks leading up to March. So are Divisions 13, 39, 61, 33, and 88. Division 25 makes a scone mix, which doesn’t sound nearly as fun to do. I mean, how do you throw scone mix at someone who’s ticked you off? While I was there, Donna Donnelly dealt with harassment from one table by pitching an extra-large Irish potato at them. This is my kind of charity.
“There’s a lot of camaraderie here,” says Maria Gallagher with a smile. “This is not just a fundraiser. People are making new friends. It’s a lot of work,” she said, wiping her cheek with a cinnamon-dusted hand, ”but it’s a lot of fun.”