Mary Farrell Guerrieri is no longer a teacher, but after two decades in the classroom, she can't help thinking like one.
That's why when St. Patrick's Day rolls around, Guerrieri is well known for her Irish Potatoes, a sweet recipe that's fun to make and doesn't involve any cooking, making them perfectly suited for leprechaun-sized cooks.
"I've enjoyed making this treat with my kindergarten classes for 20 or more years. I also made it for each St. Patrick's Day with my own children and grandchildren," Guerrieri said.
Now that her children are grown and living in different states, packages of her Irish Potatoes are eagerly awaited in the lead up to March 17.
Guerrieri has even worked her potato recipes - she has instructions for cooked and uncooked versions - into a book she's written based on her family's history.
The book is just one of several the 67-year-old Mullica Township woman has written and illustrated. But it's one that has special meaning for Guerrieri.
"I had written other children's books. They were always for children and grandchildren but the parents always got a kick out of them, too," she said. "Before he died, my dad said, 'You really need to write an Irish book.'"
Her father, Bill Farrell, died March 17, 1998. One year later, on the anniversary of his death, Guerrieri wrote the book.
"At first it was just a story - no pictures - given to my five children and my nieces and nephews, about the Irish Potato famine. This year I decided to illustrate it and turn it into a real book," she said.
Guerrieri is proud of her Irish heritage - a pride passed down generation-to-generation in her family.
Her grandfather, James J. Farrell, was president of the Friendly Son's of St. Patrick in Atlantic City for many years in the 1950s and 1960s. Farrell also worked as an editor at The Press. He started working at the paper in the 1920s, retiring in the mid-1960s
She inherited from him a trove of photographs and memorabilia from old-time Atlantic City.
"He had so many great black-and-white historic pictures of Atlantic City. When he died, I received crates of things from him - I'm still going through them," Guerrieri said. She's been working with Atlantic City historian Allen "Boo" Pergament, of Margate, to sort and catalog her collection.
Going through her grandfather's collection, Guerrieri also stumbled across a magazine with the recipe for Irish Potatoes.
From her grandfather, Guerrieri also inherited a love of public speaking - and some good advice.
"He was known for his humor. He had books, wit and wisdom from all different countries - he had a great collection of Irish humor and jokes, too," she said. "He always told me, 'Don't be nervous. Start with a joke, then when they were all laughing, cram the truth down their throats."
The advice worked. Guerrieri has done a lot of public speaking herself, including a stint where she went from town to town urging municipal officials to take steps to prevent pornography businesses from opening in their towns.
As a child, Farrell's parents shared a duplex with her grandparents. When she thinks about those times, Farrell recalls her grandfather telling her stories and teaching her Irish songs.
Music was also important to Guerrieri's parents. While her father was of Irish descent, her mother, Kathryn, came from a German background. But Bill Farrell taught his bride the Irish songs he knew, and she passed them on to his children.
"My father wasn't necessarily known as a singer, but my mom - who taught first grade in Ventnor for 40-some years - she was always singing," Guerrieri said. Kathryn Farrell was also "in every club you could imagine" and left her mark not only on her family, but on her community as well. When Kathryn Farrell died, radio personality Barbara Altman dedicated a portion of her show to her, Guerrieri recalled.
With her Irish background,Guerrieri had to broaden her skills in the kitchen after marrying Mike Guerrieri 45 years ago. She's worked Italian dishes, such as lasagna and stuffed shells into her recipe repertoire.
"When we have guests the main courses are always Italian, but the desserts are always Irish - but that's America, isn't it," she said.
The couple first met while co-starring in a production of "The King and I" while at Holy Spirit High School together.
The two didn't start dating until after high school, though they still remember the play and will recite lines to each other all these decades later.
The couple had five children, who were standout athletes in crew and field hockey.
She taught kindergarten at St. Nicholas Catholic School in Egg Harbor City and passed on her knowledge of her Irish heritage - and her love of music - to her children.
"We never had a radio in the car (when she was growing up), so, when I first got a car, I didn't get a radio. When I didn't have a radio, the children would talk to me. We would also sing, when we get in a car and go anywhere, we are always singing," she said.
These days Guerrieri and her husband work together at St. Joseph's Chapel Mausoleum in Chews Landing. She also babysits her grandchildren two days per week.
But Guerrieri also makes times to work on her books. Now that she's completed the book her father requested, she's got more work planned for the future.
She just finished a book about a collection of paintings done by her grandmother.
"I found 13 of them, so I made copies of the pictures and wrote a bit about each one," she said. "I enjoy writing and I think it's important just to keep the family history going."
Contact Steven V. Cronin:
Irish Potato Candy
•8 ounces cream cheese
•1/4 pound butter
•1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
•2 boxes 10X sugar
•8 ounces flaked coconut
•Cinnamon to taste
Cream together the cream cheese and butter. Add vanilla and mix thoroughly. Gradually add sugar, blend until smooth and fold in coconut. Put mixture in refrigerator and chill four hours. Remove from refrigerator, take a teaspoon of the mixture and roll into balls. Roll each ball in cinnamon or shake about four or five at a time in a paper sandwich bag that has some cinnamon in it. Place on wax paper on a tray or cookie sheet and refrigerate for two more hours.
Irish Potato Candy (cooked)
•3 cups sugar
•3 cups grated coconut (this works best if chopped very fine in food processor)
•3/4 cups milk (evaporated or whole)
•2 tablespoons of butter or margarine
•1 teaspoon vanilla
Place all of the above ingredients in a large frying pan. Bring to a boil and stir until thick. Remove from heat. Add 1 teaspoon of vanilla. Pour on a cookie sheet to cool slightly. Roll into balls, or potato shapes while still warm.
Roll immediately in cinnamon, or shake in a paper sandwich bag that has some cinnamon in it until the balls are coated. I do five at a time like this. Allow to set in refrigerator until completely cool.