Some Irish American gardeners plant potatoes in their gardens on March 17, the traditional death date for St. Patrick, the Roman British missionary believed to …
Some Irish American gardeners plant potatoes in their gardens on March 17, the traditional death date for St. Patrick, the Roman British missionary believed to have converted Ireland to Christianity in 432 AD. Others whip up a potful of potatoes -- boiled or mashed, preferably -- to commemorate the date.
Sixteenth-century Spanish conquistadors brought both Incan gold and potatoes to Europe, where the spuds were quickly adopted by the French and Germans -- and rejected by the British, who were suspicious of the strange new food that grew underground. The crown's decision to test the tuber in Ireland led to a short-term improvement in tenant farmers' nutrition, a boom in the population of the poor and overdependence on a single crop.
By the 17th century, potatoes, milk and cheese curds were a staple of the Irish diet. But then two great famines changed the course of Irish history. "Before the famine," culinary historian Barbara Haber writes in "From Hardtack to Home Fries," "Ireland … was described as the most densely populated country in Europe. By the end of the decade that circumscribed the Great Hunger, 1846-1855 … between 1.1 and 1.5 million people died from starvation and diseases related to malnutrition. … Within that same decade, two million more of the Irish left their country and settled elsewhere -- that vast majority in England and the United States."
Mugs of green beer and platters of corned beef, boiled potatoes and cabbage are how most people think of celebrating St. Patrick's Day in North America -- but that's not how the holiday was traditionally celebrated in Ireland. It was, in fact, Irish Americans who transformed St. Patrick's Day from a religious feast day to a celebration of their homeland.
Until the 1970s, Irish pubs were closed by law on St. Paddy's feast day. And if meat were eaten, it was more likely to be lamb or bacon, with which the Irish have had a centuries-long love affair.
It's not that corned beef was unknown in Ireland: Irish corned beef was considered the best on the international market. The problem was that the people making it couldn't afford to eat it.
Irish immigrants could afford to eat more meat in the U.S., and the meat they could most afford was corned beef. But it was not the same corned beef their ancestors made. It was actually a Jewish corned beef variation, easy to find and adopt because Irish and Jewish immigrants often lived in contiguous neighborhoods in cities like New York, Boston and Chicago.
Does that mean you'll need to break out the curds to capture the true spirit of St. Paddy, who never met a potato on the Emerald Isle? A more delicious way to honor the old country and the new land may be with a big bowl of champ -- a popular Irish dish that connects past and present generations. It's easy to make -- just boil a mess of potatoes and salt them well. Then whip them up with hot milk and green onions and top them with lots of butter.
Sláinte! (Good health!)
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