Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Erin Go "Bleh"; or, I Hate Leprechauns (but the Craic Was Great)

Erin go bragh-less.
Saint Patrick's Day this year coincided with a visit from my sister, who lives clear across the country.

As her birthday is in March, we decided to combine celebrations and enjoy an extra-special day, starting off with homemade brown bread and ending with the stock-in-trade St. Patrick's Day meal of corned beef and cabbage.

From what I've read, this dish seems to be more of an ex-pat iconic sort of meal than what the Irish actually eat on St. Patrick's Day.

Many sources indicate that beef, corned (cured with salt for preservation) or not, was too expensive for most of the Irish population to obtain and was principally a dish for the well-off. As a holiday meal, corned beef was considered a special Easter feast and not a St. Paddy's one.

Some sources suggest that corned beef was actually invented by Irish immigrants in the United States in the late 1800s and, over the next few decades, this "tradition" was exported back to Ireland (though Darina Allen, the doyenne of Irish cookery, states that "corned beef has a long history in the Irish diet" and that corning beef was the most important industry in the city of Cork between the late 1680s and 1825.

On March 17 in Ireland, it seems, a family would more typically tuck into a bacon joint (cured pork).

The main dish for the day ought to be a bit of a question mark, I suppose, since the holiday itself is a bit of a b├╣rach (Gaelic for "mess").

My maternal grandparents were Irish immigrants, and St. Patrick's Day didn't seem to be a big deal to them. My mom didn't make any special meals or fuss about the holiday, either. They all thought the onslaught of leprechauns and harps and shamrocks was silly, and pointed out that St. Patrick's was a feast day for a saint and that in Ireland people went to church in the morning and celebrated in the afternoon (and until the 1970s, pubs were actually closed by law on March 17).

In recent years, I've wondered a bit about why it's OK to depict Irish people via the stereotype of a pipe-smoking leprechaun hoisting tankards of beer. Not that I felt all picked-upon and insulted (in fact the issue doesn't twang a single nerve, I just think it's all stupid, and I really do hate leprechauns).

Pig, shamrock, shillelagh: check.
But I'm old enough to recall the Frito Bandito being kicked off TV as an insulting depiction of Mexican people, and I can't imagine other ethnic groups being celebrated in the form of a grotesque figure with a drinking problem.

(Though it does appear that even in modern-day America, one can go a step too far in depicting the Irish as nothing but a bunch of drunks: various Irish heritage organizations took Urban Outfitters to task a year ago for their insulting images of Irish people.)

Of course, Irish stereotypes that are entirely flattering can be pretty cloying to people of Irish extraction, too--the principal one being the Wise, Twinkly-Eyed Storyteller, usually male and typically clad in an Aran sweater, smoking a pipe, and wearing a flat tweed cap.

This individual often appears in films to the tune of Irish pipes and whistles and speaks in a way that suggests he's got direct links to an ancient world of selkies and spirits that we mere modern mortals have cut ourselves off from.

This droll, wise being makes my  mom's eyes roll whenever he or she pops up in a movie. I once loaned her a copy of The Secret of Roan Inish, which I thought she'd find charming, but she found the uber-Irish islanders even cornier than corned beef.

He's very clean.
She got a kick out of the old grandfather in A Hard Day's Night, however (the one who, when arrested by British police officers, starts hollering, "I'll go on hunger strike! I know your caper. The kidney punch and the rabbit clout. The third degree and the size twelve boot ankle tap....I'm a soldier for the Republic! You'll need the mahogany truncheons on this boyo!" and starts singing A Nation Once Again.).

Being the daughter of a woman who really, truly, for-the-record did transport guns in a baby carriage during the Easter Rising in Dublin, my mom no doubt heard lots of talk about the Troubles and knows the difference between a patriot and a poser.

(For the non-Irish-affiliated among you, having a grandma who transported guns in a baby carriage is frequently claimed by Irish wannabes but is not always true, just as it's unlikely that all the people claiming to have a Cherokee great-grandmother really do have one, as many Cherokee themselves have noted.)

Faith and begorrah, but I have digressed. I was going on about corned beef, wasn't I? Which I have made for the first and last time. It cooked up just fine, but it's nasty. Almost as nasty as leprechauns.

Not that the rubbery, salty corned beef was the star of the occasion. We also had pork shoulder, carrots, mashed potatoes, cabbage (of course), and an orange Bundt cake for dessert. And the craic (pronounced "crack" and meaning fun, talk, and laughter) was great; I woke up with a pulled rib muscle the next morning, from laughing.

(Honestly. This is not just a cliche about side-splitting here; it must be how the term came into being.)

Next year, however, we go back to our standard St. Patrick's Day  meal of roast salmon, mashed potatoes, and cabbage.

Now please excuse me while I go look for me shillelagh.

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