A word’s potential can be so great.

“Kishes of new potatoes” read a line in the menu for the Irish banquet at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. If I ate more Irish food, I might have already known.

As was, it was a word of intrigue. Did it refer to its cooking method? The size of the new potatoes? Several definitions mentioned “gravel”, as least for the etymology of the word. How delightful! Perhaps kishes are gravel-sized lumps. It fit. As did the word’s current meaning in metallurgy, of carbon-rich graphic which forms on the surface of molten ore. When it was not an ancient Babylonian city.

But no. There’s nothing so metaphorical about the word, now that I’ve checked a dictionary. It’s straight out of the Irish language, and is a word for a basket. It’s a method of presentation.

Could it also be a unit of measurement? At least approximately? How many punnets to a kish? All baskets are not kishes, for, as Old Irish Life specifies, it is a “flat basket”. More specifically, they are flat baskets made of willows, as I note from the definition of “kish maker” as “a maker of willow baskets” from a list of old Scottish occupations.

Turf can be delivered in kishes, and poultry and fish can be delivered in kreels as well. Potatoes may be poured into a kish. A passage from Ireland: its scenery mentions “a kish and potato basket”, but I can’t tell if those are two things or one. In 1802, in Meath, 20 kishes of turf was worth £1. Its Irishness was such that in F.G. Trafford’s 1866 novel, Maxwell Drewitt, the titular character could say, “To the rice pot the Hindoo. The potato kish to the Irish.” (104)

But what about that passing mention of “kish maker” on a list of Scottish occupations? By some point, surely, “kish” became a loan-word from Irish more widely used in the British Isles; assuming its inclusion in this modern list is no error.

*© S. Worthen 2009