Monday, March 17, 2008

You Say Po-tay-to, and I say Pa-tah-to. (Who's Irish and who's not.)

Not that I do much of anything to celebrate it, but I've always been rather fond of St. Patrick's Day.

I do send a few cards out. Sometimes I bake soda bread. I might watch some schlocky music program on PBS the weekend before. I'll no doubt listen to a few of my rather large collection of Celtic music CDs. I'll wear something green.

But I don't really celebrate-celebrate.

When I was a kid, attending parochial school staffed in large part by Irish-American nuns, in a parish populated in large part by Irish-Americans, St. Patrick's Day was a small respite in what was an altogether glum Lenten month.

We decorated the classroom with cardboard cutouts of shamrocks and leprechauns. We already wore green uniforms, but most of us tarted things up with a green carnation, a flimsy little Erin Go Bragh flag pinned on, or a "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" button. (Show offs!) In music, we sang hoary old tunes like "My Wild Irish Rose", "Irish Eyes," and "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen." From whence cometh my fondness for schlocky Irish music, I suppose. We also sang slightly peppier songs - "The Wearin' of the Green," "Oh, the Days of the Kerry Dancers," "Paddy McGinity's Harp."

And the nuns, depending on their temperament, would use the opportunity to demean the pathetic few students among our ranks who could not claim any Irish heritage; ignore the fact that there might be anyone in the class who wasn't Irish - and, presumably, didn't care; or take some sort of melting pot high road.

Not surprisingly, I have the keenest recall of the demeaners, in particular one nun who spent the day pretty much goading kids to make fun of the handful of French, Italian, and Polish kids in the class - "all in the spirit of good natured fun." (Hah!)

In the fifth grade, we went row by row, around the class, announcing what our ethnic background was. In a class chocked full of kids named Mulcahy, Ryan, Shea, Murphy, Sullivan (two), Walsh (two), Leary, Harrahy, and Tivnan, we already knew "who was and who wasn't." If your last name was Monfredo or Goyette, there was no way to disguise things - although I had friends with French and Polish names whose mothers were Irish. (Those are the ones I felt especially bad for. If only their fathers had the Irish names, no one would have to know....I was especially sensitive in this area because my mother was German. Horror of horrors: what if my last name had been Wolf?)

As Project Ethnic Identification proceeded up my row, I decided that - St. Patrick's Day or not - I was going to say that I was German. My stomach started to tighten. I told myself that this was a practice case for martyrdom. If I didn't have the guts to say I was German, surely I wouldn't have the guts to defiantly tell a Communist soldier, standing over me with his bayonet poised, that I was a Catholic.

"I'm German," I announced, to the gasps and titters of my fellow classmates.

What was I? Crazy?

Sure, Rogers was a kind of neutral surname. I mean, no way was Roy Rogers anything but a big old Protestant. And Ginger Rogers - wasn't she a Christian Scientist? But in our family, the name was Irish. And Maureen - well, that was an ethnic dead give away of the highest order.

Our nun would have nothing of it. Wanting to make some point about the proportion of Irish-ers in her classroom, she told me, "You don't have to say that about yourself, dear." She marked me down as Irish.

I went home, no doubt to a dinner of corned beef and cabbage, which I liked for two reasons alone: butter slathered and salt sprinkled on mashed up boiled potato, and the next day's leftover hash. But those potatoes. Talk about a little bit of heaven. Perhaps this year, I will forego bread baking and make meeself a few praties. Yum!

For desert, my mother always marked a holiday with some sort of theme cake, so we would have had chocolate cake with white frosting, decorated with bright green shamrocks.

We didn't celebrate any German holiday. No Oktoberfest. No Steuben Day. No St. Boniface. For every other ethnic group that Worcester had, it didn't seem to have any Germans, other than my mother.

And - for that one fleeting moment when I had the courage to utter the words "I'm German" - me.

Recipe for the world's best soda bread:
This is the recipe that my beloved Aunt Margaret used to make. It came from a friend of hers who hailed from County Cork. Margaret died just before St. Patrick's Day, 12 years ago. On the night of her funeral, my sister Trish told us that she was expecting a baby - my niece, Molly Margaret. At times, the world does have a wondrous way of giving back, doesn't it?

As you begin:
Heat oven to 3750Grease 2-quart casserole OR a cookie sheet

Ingredients:4 ups all-purpose flour
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 tsp. Salt
1 tsp. baking powder
3 tblsp. Caraway seeds (or more)
1 1/3 cup buttermilk
¼ cup butter
1 tsp baking soda
1 egg unbeaten
1 egg beaten
2 cups seeded raisins (These are hard to come by. I order mine in bulk from Sun Maid. If you have to use regular old raisins, the bread will still be fine, but the big, seeded raisins are better.)

Sift flour, sugar, salt, baking powder into mixing bowl.
Stir in caraway seeds
Cut in butter
Add raisins
Combine buttermilk, egg, and baking soda. Beat with egg beater
Stir into flour mixture until just moistened.

Turn dough onto slightly floured surface.
Knead lightly until you can hold it in your hands and it’s not sticky.
Shape into ball and place in casserole OR shape into two balls and put on cookie sheet.
With sharp knife, make a cross about 4” deep in the center. (Less deep if doing two smaller loaves.)
Brush with yolk of the beaten egg (beaten with a fork).
Bake in moderate oven for 1 hour 10 minutes (big loaf); 45-50 minutes (smaller loaf).
Cool in pan.

Make yourself a nice cup of tea - Barry's or Lyons, or Twinings Irish Breakfast - and enjoy.

1 comment:

John said...

When I was a kid, my mom would always head out to work on St. Patrick's Day in a green outfit and a "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" pin. And my mom (& Dad) are Irish - born, raised, and married in Belfast.

The funny thing is: we're Protestants.

When I moved to Boston I though it was funny that people whose families had been in the US for generations would claim some kind of real Irishness based on their roots that they would not apply to my orange Irish family, most of whom actually live there in Ireland.

It is a very American thing, though; from what I understand, nobody in Ireland makes that big a deal of it.