Cross-posted at This Is How I Eat
St. Patrick’s Day approaches, trailing paper shamrocks, green-bedecked bagpipers and sloshed pre-yuppy kids in its wake. Our American observance of St. Patrick’s Day moves further every year towards a celebration solely of getting wasted in green T-shirts, leading most Americans to believe Ireland’s sole contributions to global haute cuisine are its attempts to perfect the art of brewing brown, alcoholic liquids. From what you’ll read, that’s 100 percent accurate, but it doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate Irish solid food, too.
The primary Irish dinner is exactly what you’d expect: Hearty, comforting, and boring. Having two Irish-immigrant grandparents, I’ve twice visited Ireland and eaten many meals with second cousins, most of which followed a plug-and-play culinary script: Well-done mutton/chicken/beef (pick one), boiled potatoes, boiled/steamed carrots, and boiled/steamed cauliflower. Seasoning consists solely of butter, salt and/or pepper. For dessert, there’s often trifle, which I’ve experienced as a bowl of canned fruit with cream poured on top. Preparation of this trifle is truly a fine, complicated process.
I jest, but the thing is, this meal is so well-suited to the cool, wet climate that you can’t help but crave a heaping plate of salted, boiled root vegetables each night after a day touring medieval ruins and gorgeous, windswept coastlines. You hop in the doss full, tired and ready to sleep a satiated sleep. You can also look forward to a morning of what actually is Ireland’s finest solid-food contribution to the world: the Irish breakfast.
“Irish breakfast” is a bit of a misnomer, as it makes the reader think Ireland is still a nation of ruddy-cheeked turf cutters filling up on salted meat before a day in the bog. Day-to-day normal-people Irish breakfast is a lot like most other Western breakfasts: cereal (often muesli), eggs, toast, jam, and tea laden with milk and sugar. (Always tea – Ireland is No. 2 in world tea consumption per capita. And based on this list, everyone in the UAE must hit the head really, really frequently). The full Irish breakfast, then, is for special occasions and tourists. Like most things for tourists, it’s popular for a reason: It’s damned good.
Each year at Christmas, my mom cooks up the Irish-breakfast meat melange: bacon (saltier but leaner than the U.S. version; American bacon is better, IMHO), bangers (lean and lightly seasoned; leaves American breakfast sausage in the dust), white pudding (pork-and-oatmeal sausage, fried and sliced), black pudding (same as white, plus pig’s blood – delightfully tangy), Kerrygold butter, toast and tea. We also like to throw in a side of fruit — you know, so it’s healthy. My grandma wasn’t much for cooking this, but she did like to order a package of Irish breakfast supplies delivered for her kids’ families as an occasional present. It may not originate with Grandma, but it’s nonetheless become my favorite family-food tradition.
I haven’t even gone into some of the other Irish edibles — soda bread, Finch’s orange pop, buttered-cucumber sandwiches — but I have fond memories of all of their assorted tasty blandness. When you responsibly sip your Tyrconnell whiskey this weekend, take a moment to remember those poor forgotten foods with their starchy, salty origins in an island far across the Atlantic.