Colcannon is a simple dish with hidden depths. It consists of mashed potatoes mixed with kale or cabbage, traditionally topped with butter, and some variations feature scallions, leeks, onions, or chives. In order to predict the future, it may also contain a thimble, button, or ring.
It is believed that potatoes arrived in Ireland in the late 16th century, where they were embraced like no where else in Europe: While the rest of the continent still viewed them as new and circumspect, the Irish were eating their fill. The word “colcannon,” however, preserves parts of Irish linguistic and culinary history that long predate the tuber’s vaunted arrival. “Cál” is Irish for “cabbage,” and “cainnen” suggests old Irish translations of garlic, onion, and leek. So the Emerald Isle may well have long enjoyed a potato-less prototype for the dish.
Over time, colcannon became associated with various Irish rituals, most of them observed on Halloween (or Oíche Shamhna, a harvest festival). The dish was often served with a small trinket hidden inside, each carrying a symbolic meaning: Buttons signaled to boys and thimbles to girls that they would not soon be married. Rings meant the opposite, and coins portended wealth on the horizon. Some women even hung colcannon-filled socks from their doors, mistletoe-like, in hopes of ensnaring a husband. These traditions illustrate colcannon’s centrality to Irish folk identity—as do these lovely lyrics from “The Skillet Pot”:
Did you ever eat Colcannon, made from lovely pickled cream?
With the greens and scallions mingled like a picture in a dream.
Did you ever make a hole on top to hold the melting flake
Of the creamy, flavoured butter that your mother used to make?
Yes you did, so you did, so did he and so did I.
And the more I think about it sure the nearer I’m to cry.
Oh, wasn’t it the happy days when troubles we had not,
And our mothers made Colcannon in the little skillet pot.
Where to Try It
Gallaghers Boxty House20-21 Temple Bar 2 , Dublin, Ireland
This restaurant serves traditional Irish fare in the heart of the action on Temple Bar street.