Sláinte!: Comfort & Coincidence
A Wedding Day and Bloomsday Coincide
Coincidences never cease to amaze me. Once is, well, coincidence. Twice, will earn a ‘hmmm.’ Three times, sends the eyebrows soaring. But when something happens over and over and over again, there are undeniable patterns at work.
What, you may well wonder, has this to do with Irish culture and food? Blame my dear Da for the tangent along which I wander at this writing. His birthday is coming up on June 3. When I was a child, it was almost with religious fervor that Mom and I bustled about the kitchen that day making Da’s favorite desert: Strawberry Shortcake. One huge homemade sweet biscuit copiously piled with succulent sugared scarlet berries served with extra-generous dollops of fresh cream hand-whipped to a buttery froth in a dutifully chilled bowl with equally cold beaters.
Back then, our festive preparations had no more meaning for me than that Strawberry Shortcake was Da’s favorite dessert. It wasn’t until almost five decades later, after I had been writing Sláinte! for a number of years, that I connected his penchant for strawberries and cream with the Irish foodways his Fermanagh-born / Donegal-raised / Canadian-American-immigrant mother, Margaret McCaffery, had subconsciously instilled in her brood of nine.
And then I started thinking about all of Da’s favorite foods. The most blatantly and transparently Irish were his humongous Saturday and holiday breakfasts. Fried eggs (with ketchup), maple syrup drizzled over rashers of crisp bacon (or sausages or ham slices or spicy Scrapple — a Pennsylvania Dutch cornmeal mush and peppery pork concoction Da acquired a fondness for that tastes a far sight better than it sounds and is a fair substitute for Blood Pudding), plus pan-fried potatoes, piles of buttered toast, darn close to light-as-air jelly doughnuts from the German family bakery down the street, and the capper and otherwise forbidden treat: Irish Coffee (sans whiskey but with an inch of heavy cream floating on the surface of my half-cup of piping hot, sugary sweet, black java).
Da’s other Irish comfort foods were subtler to discern, but slowly and surely they became apparent. Summer’s first tiny new potatoes boiled briefly in their jackets, served with butter, hefty lashings of salt and pepper, washed down with ice-cold milk. Winter stews of potatoes, onions, carrots and either beef or lamb. Corned Beef and Cabbage on St. Pat’s (a must!). Sunday roasts, with gravy and potatoes. Buttered slices of bread sandwiching anything left over from the previous night’s dinner – especially slices of Sunday roasts, but also just about any vegetable, and his top choice: baked beans. Thick, hot oatmeal, sugar sprinkled, butter speckled, and awash in cream. Real Oyster Stew whereby the delicate mollusks are ever so briefly poached in hot (not boiling) milk, ladled into deep bowls and anointed with pools of melted butter. Snacks of cheese, crackers, and mustard pickles. Stewed rhubarb (which my Italian Mom never found a fondness for). Sauteed mushrooms. Pan-fried liver smothered in onions. Tea with milk and sugar for a temperamental tummy. Fish on Fridays. Autumn’s finest fruit: apples, which he’d happily munch au naturel and wax poetic o’er in a crusty cinnamon-laced pie – the first thing Mom learned to prepare to please his palate when they were newlyweds, and guaranteed to always garner Da’s highest culinary compliment: “I could LIVE on this!”
In the litany above you may have noticed a few patterns. Butter and cream, Ireland’s white foods, ranked high on Da’s edible hit parade. So were potatoes. Da loved them every way you can imagine. Boiled, baked, roasted, mashed, hashed, diced, riced, scalloped, and fried. He loved them plain and he loved them in combo. Mashed with carrots and butter, mashed with turnips and bacon, mashed with milk-poached spring scallions, mashed with just a splash of milk and a whole lot of butter. Purist-plain or piled on a plate and puddled with roast beef gravy. Fried to a crisp, then tossed into a paper bag and shaken to sublime perfection with salt and a splash of malt vinegar.
Baked potatoes were probably Da’s top preference as they allowed him to mash the innards with butter chunks and then sandwich the earthy skins around more creamy slivers. An image is engraved on my mind’s eye of him lifting a potato skin-butter combo with a flourish and saluting the lowly spud with one of his most repeated recitations: “My mother came from Donegal where they eat potatoes, skins and all!”
Which brings me to another big Irish coincidence. Words. Da loved them maybe even more than he loved his spuds. He did crossword puzzles, anagrams, and cryptograms. He could easily be coaxed into a cutthroat game of Scrabble, and was the first person I ever saw create a seven letter word that simultaneously hit two triple-word tiles! He mesmerized me, and legions of neighborhood children, with his tales of Suzanne and Pico, the talking wise horse and uppity mouse who were his daily lunch mates at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. His song repertoire was deep and wide as was his treasury of poetry. And he was always, always reading. My favorite picture of him was taken by a 1930s “candid” photographer and shows Da walking down a city street thoroughly engrossed in reading the open book he holds in his uplifted hands.
Books were Da’s best friends. When I could barely read, every Friday night we’d hike to the weekly bookmobile and load up on words. I’d pick ten artfully illustrated children’s tales (which he’d put on his card as tiny children such as me were only allowed to borrow three), and he’d get a few heavier volumes, both in weight and subject matter. His favorite author was James Joyce, whose work Da read again and again, something I never understood until many years later when I was swept away by my first reading of Ulysses.
And that brings me to the last and most mysterious coincidence of all. You see, my parents were married – in a church and with all the trimmings – on June 16, 1936. No big deal, you think? Well, ponder this: church weddings always take place on the weekend and in 1936 June 16 was a Wednesday. And June 16, now celebrated globally as Bloomsday, was the date that Leopold Bloom made his historic literary trek about Dublin in James Joyce’s masterwork Ulysses. And Da loved Joyce. How’s that for a coincidence – eh?
2 cups sifted flour
2 tablespoons sugar
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup butter, cubed
1 cup milk
Preheat oven to 450 F. In a large bowl sift together flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Cut butter in until flour mixture is grainy. Stir in milk, just until blended. Spread dough in one 8-inch layer cake pan. Bake until medium brown, 12-15 minutes. Remove from pan and split crosswise while hot. Spread cut surfaces with butter. Fill and top with sweetened berries. Serve with Chantilly Whipped Cream on the side. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
4 cups strawberries
2/3 to 1 cup sugar
Wash and hull strawberries, then cut into halves or quarters depending on size. Place berries in a medium deep bowl and sprinkle with sugar to taste. Mix sugar and berries. Allow to sit for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until juicy.
CHANTILLY WHIPPED CREAM
1 cup heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons sifted confectioner’s sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Chill a deep, preferably stainless steel, bowl and mixing beaters for at least 30 minutes before making whipped cream. When ready to proceed, pour cream into chilled bowl and whip until stiff with chilled beaters. Fold in sifted confectioner’s sugar and vanilla. – Recipe: Edythe Preet.