Irish food is dreadful.
I am allowed to say that as I am mostly Irish — a bit black Irish on my father’s side, a wee bit lace curtain Irish on my mother’s. Growing up, our father frequently reminded us that we were a shunned minority, the Irish Catholics. Newspapers in New York would portray Irish revelers as angry, drunken monkeys. Seriously. We knew all the Irish jokes: What is a seven-course Irish meal? A six pack and a potato. Irish foreplay? “Honey, I’m home!” Ha ha.
Struggling to find palatable Irish recipes on the Internet I came across the Irish food pyramid. At the bottom, potatoes. Next, meat, then whiskey, ales, stouts, and lagers. At the narrow top, “everything else.” Ha ha.
Interestingly, the dish most associated with Irish cuisine and St. Patrick’s Day, corned beef and cabbage, isn’t even Irish. It’s British, and the Irish originally prepared it with fatty bacon, not corned beef. It was the Jewish butchers on the Lower East Side who introduced poor Irish immigrants to corned beef as a substitute for the more “dear,” that is expensive, bacon.
Who was St. Patrick and why do we celebrate him on March 17th? Well, faith and begorra, he wasn’t Irish either! He was a British lad who, at the age of 16 (in the 5th century), was captured by Irish raiders and worked as a sheep herder for years. Lonely, shy, and isolated, he was reportedly prone to visions. One of these visions urged him to escape and return to his homeland. When he did, he became a priest and returned soon after to Ireland to convert the pagans to Christianity. He used the beloved shamrock, a symbol of spring and rebirth, as a three-sided symbol to represent the Holy Trinity. He also had a knack for converting wealthy women who became nuns, opened nunneries, and used their wealth to convert others. He died on March 17, 461.
The first St. Patrick’s Day parade was not held in Ireland. It took place in New York City on March 17, 1762, to honor Irish soldiers serving in the English military. New York City’s parade is the world’s oldest civilian parade and the largest in the United States.
The staples of the early Irish diet were cereals and dairy produce. Oats, barley, wheat, and rye were used to prepare porridge, gruel, roasted grain dishes, meal pastes, and coarse flat breads. Wheat flour was considered a luxury and only used for raised breads during festivals and holy days. According to the rules of hospitality, around the 7th and 8th century, if any noble folk showed up at your door, you had to give them “four cakes to each man with their condiment, and their seasoning.” These could be stalks of fresh onion, or fish, or honey.
Because dairy products — milk, cheeses, and butter — were considered of greater value than beef, the Irish ate more pork, lamb, and mutton. In medieval Ireland, the deciduous woodlands and inland waterways provided venison, wild boar, hazelnuts, berries, crabapples, watercress, wood sorrel, wild garlic, and freshwater fish. Salmon was served fresh or pickled.
One reason native Irish foods remain peasant in character is that until well into the 19th century standard cooking utensils were as limited as the foods available in most rural communities. There was an open cooking pot, a cast iron pot, and a griddle. Cooking was confined to an open fire; boiling and baking were the only options. The national dishes, Irish mutton stew, boxty, champ, colcannon, soda bread, and oatcakes have survived in popularity because their roots run so deep.
Perhaps you’ll celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by going into the city and watching the 251st parade with grand marshall Francis X. Comerford, chief revenue officer and president of commercial operations for NBC. Or perhaps you’ll head out to Montauk on March 25th for the 50th annual St. Patrick’s Day parade and drink and dance and be merry, and perhaps do your best to enlarge the local newspaper’s police blotter.
As for me, I’ll be sipping a Guinness and wrestling with some ancient Irish recipes, attempting to turn them into more modern and palatable dishes. I’m allowed to say that, I am Irish. Kiss me.