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Arts and Culture

New historical marker sings the praises of the Syracuse salt potato

Syracuse will be the first city in the country to receive a roadside marker as part of a new grant program. It’s called “Hungry for History,” and the honor is no small potatoes.

The new marker honoring salt potatoes was unveiled at the Willow Rock Brewing Company as local history fans cheered. The salt potato’s link to Syracuse dates back as early as 1883.

Robert Searing, curator of history at the Onondaga Historical Association, revealed the marker’s permanent location will be at the Salt Museum along Onondaga Lake.

"It was called the Salt Lake for the longest time,” said Searing. “At one point, 600 acres around that lake were covered in those salt sheds and those salt blocks."

As part of the project, Searing said the OHA was able to substantiate folklore that the salt potatoes originated in Syracuse by tracing the popular picnic spud to the Keefe brothers, sons of Irish immigrants. They boiled the potatoes in salt and started selling them at their grocery store on Wolf St. in Syracuse.

"People loved them. It took off like wildfire,” said Searing. “Suddenly, all the shops on the West Side, North Side, where the salt industry still dominated, sold them."

During that time, Syracuse was known as the “salt city,” at one point providing almost 90% of the country’s supply of salt. That accessibility helped make salt potatoes possible.

The new marker is just the first in the William G. Pomeroy Foundation’s new “Hungry for History” grant program that will celebrate regional food specialties across the country.

Deryn Pomeroy from the foundation said the idea was sparked when they received an application for the foundation’s historical marker program for a pepperoni roll in West Virginia.

"There are so many other stories in so many other communities about these regional food specialties that communities would want to share, and my first thought was 'salt potatoes in Syracuse, New York,'" said Pomeroy.

OHA Executive Director Gregg Tripoli said food can play an important role in bringing people together, and at the time of the salt potato invention, Irish immigrants were suffering from terrible oppression.

"I think that does speak to something about our multicultural history about the difficulty that different immigrant groups have had coming in here, and yet they're resilient," said Tripoli. “In the end, we all benefit from what they contribute."

The marker will be officially dedicated at the Salt Museum on July 10th. The William G. Pomeroy Foundation is still accepting grant applications for other food-related historical markers.