By Robert Searing, the Onondaga Historical Association and Museum Curator of History
If you’ve been to a summer barbecue or clambake in Central New York, chances are good that salt potatoes were on the menu. Tiny, tender, and smothered in melted butter, this briny side dish has been a mainstay of the region’s food scene for generations and the recipe hasn’t changed. Get a big pot of boiling water, add an uncomfortable amount of salt, at least a cup, and the potatoes. Let them cook for about twenty minutes and voila! They go with just about anything, but I recommend enjoying them with an ice-cold beer, both because it’s delicious, and, as a nod to the hard-working and hard-drinking men of Syracuse who invented them.
The salt potato was born in the salt blocks of Syracuse sometime in the middle of the 19th century. At its peak in the 1870s, Onondaga County provided nearly 90% of the nation’s salt. Thousands of German and Irish immigrants flocked to the region to work in the “Salt City.”
There were two methods of salt production: the solar, evaporative method, and the boiling method. Evaporation produced “coarse” salt. Brine was pumped into massive “salt sheds” or “salt covers,” giant 16 foot by 18-foot vats built on two-foot pilings, and left out for mother nature to do her work. Boiling was the earliest method of salt cultivation. The first “salt blocks” were built by Elisha Alvord in 1798. They contained four, 60-gallon kettles, hence the “block” or square design. As time went on, the blocks contained as many as 20 kettles and burned coal instead of wood. This produced a higher quality, finer salt. By 1888, the blocks around Onondaga Lake produced 2.5 million bushels of fine salt annually. They also produced the first salt potatoes.
As the story goes, the salt-boilers brought potatoes, a staple of their diets, in to work. At some point, a flash of divine inspiration came over them and they threw the spuds into the big bubbling kettles. Little did they know that this delightful dish, born of necessity and convenience, would become the region’s culinary calling card.
By the 1880s, the taverns and saloons on Syracuse’s North Side, where many of the boilers and other workers would congregate at the end of a hard day, were serving bowls of salt potatoes with their pints. One establishment in particular, Keefe Brothers, became famous as the home of “hot salt potatoes.” Arthur and James Keefe ran a grocery store on Wolf Street. Their parents were Irish immigrants and their father worked in the salt business. It’s safe to assume they grew up eating salt potatoes. Arthur too worked in the industry as a cooper before he and his brother opened their store. They knew their neighbors and they knew their market. When they opened up a small tavern next to their grocery store in 1883, they had one thing on the menu, salt potatoes. They were a huge hit. Taverns all over the area followed suit and by the turn of the 20th century salt potatoes were widely available.
Keefe Brothers were the first, but Hinerwadel’s Grove, another North Side establishment, made salt potatoes famous. They served them as part of their legendary clambakes from the day they opened in 1904. In 1981, Hinerwadel’s trademarked their “famous salt potatoes” and began selling the beloved five-pound white bag of potatoes and a salt packet. Sadly, Hinerwadel’s Grove closed in 2018, but the iconic white bag lives on. Pick one up this summer with a six-pack of your favorite lager, go home and pretend you’re an 19th-century salt boiler! Don’t forget the butter.
Check out a salt potato recipe here.
Robert Searing is the Curator of History at the Onondaga Historical Association and Museum, located at 321 Montgomery Street in Syracuse. Learn more at cnyhistory.org.
Edible History Lesson is a monthly column by a Finger Lakes historian. It uncovers a historical topic relating to the region’s foodshed that is still relevant to this day.