George Youssef Culinary

Traditional, “Authentic” St. Patrick’s Day Food

March 17, 2010

by Cynthia Bertelsen

He’s a desperate big, little Erin go brah;
He will pardon our follies and promise us joy,
By the mass, by the Pope, by St. Patrick so long
As I live, I will give him a beautiful song!
No saint is so good, Ireland’s country adorning:
Then hail to St. Patrick, today, in the morning!

Oh what would St. Patrick’s Day be, without corned beef and cabbage? What indeed, without the tradition so beloved of Irish Americans?

Bu there you are, that word. Tradition.

St. Patrick’s Day, as celebrated in America and anywhere other than Ireland, represents a grand nostalgic embrace of a tradition that might never have been. Where potato bread and fatty pork mixed with cabbage reigned, how did the Irish Americans jump onto the corned beef bandwagon? See this article by Francis Lam in Salon for a glimmer of the deception. For one thing, it has to do with xenophobia and social aspirations.*

Think of the sayings attributed to the early Irish immigrants: Shanty Irish, Lace-Curtain Irish, Paddy with His Pig in the Parlor, Mackerel Snapper. (Reminds one of the slurs against other immigrant groups, slurs that you may well hear today in all the surging, frothing xenophobia against Hispanics … . See the Racial Slur Database for more.)

Beef, in Ireland, was a rare dish, usually eaten by the propertied classes. Not to put too fine a point on it, beef is usually associated with the English, who as we well know, involved themselves in Irish affairs early on. And corned (salted) beef produced in Ireland appeared in the larders of kitchens even the most isolated corners of the British Empire.

So when you eat your corned beef and cabbage today, you may well be participating in a living example of culinary tradition-making.

The Guinness is another story, however. A tale of fish and isinglass.

Another “traditional” Irish food, which really began in the nineteenth century …  and likely with the American Indians’ use of pearl ash to leaven corn cakes. In Ireland, it signaled extreme poverty. See The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread. “Traditionally” baked in a bastible, or cast-iron Dutch oven, near the coals in the hearth.

And — don’t add anything frilly like raisins or chocolate chips or currants or orange zest or any of that sort of thing. It’s not, ummm, how do I say this, traditional.

3 cups whole wheat flour
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 t. salt
1 t. baking soda
2 – 2 1/2 cups buttermilk or sour milk

Preheat oven to 450 F.

Mix dry ingredients well. Stir in the buttermilk. Dough needs to be soft but not sticky. Knead on a floured board for 2 – 3 minutes. Form into a round loaf and place on a parchment-covered baking sheet. Cut a deep cross into the top of the loaf. Bake at 450 F for 15  minutes. Reduce heat to 400 and continue baking for another 20 minutes.

*St. Patrick’s feast day also offered, and offers, a respite from Lenten culinary restrictions!

For more on Irish food and traditions, take a look at the following:

The Festive Food of Ireland (1992), by Darina Allen

Irish Country Recipes (1990), compiled by Ann and Sarah Gomar

Land of Milk and Honey: The Story of Traditional Irish Food and Drink (1991), by Bríd Mahon




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    “Gherkins & Tomatoes” revels in the lusciousness of multicultural foodways and culinary history. Cookbooks old and rare and new, recipes antique and modern, trends, morsels, tidbits, art … . History in the eating … and the making. And always about hunger, in all its forms … Ultimately, life’s all about cooks and cooking, feeding those hungers.
    At present, just brief news “bites” about food or food-related customs will appear. I am working on a large project that demands a lot of time.

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    Site © 2010 C. Bertelsen


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