By Jim Mathis
Let me start by saying I am not Irish. Mostly Welsh and German, and like most American mutts, I’m sure there are several other nationalities sprinkled in my family tree. But to the best of my knowledge, there’s no Irish. However, like many Americans, for one day in March, I put on a green sweater and celebrate my faux-Irish heritage.
In my younger and wilder days, I would gather with a group of friends early in the day for eggs and corned beef hash before heading downtown for the parade. There we would crowd into bars, drink too much unnaturally-green beer and regret our actions on the morning of March 18. Now I’m more likely to raise a glass of Guinness in the comfort of my own home. For some reason, the idea of drinking a gallon of beer and laced with food coloring no longer holds any appeal to me. Perhaps it’s the memory of those pain-filled mornings after.
Speaking of green drinks, my bride (and I’m sure a few others out there) look forward to St. Patty’s Day for a whole different (and non-alcoholic) reason. Every year as the first of March approaches, she knows the Shamrock Shake will return to the Golden Arches. While she can resist a shake for most of the year, the cold minty appeal of the green drink draws her into the drive-thru every year.
Forgive me for focusing on beverages, but St. Patrick’s Day is often cited as one of the top drinking days of the year, so it seems natural. And since we’re talking about drinking, let’s look at whiskey. The whiskeys from the Emerald Isle are not nearly as celebrated as those from Scotland, but they should not be overlooked. After all, it is believed the word whiskey has it’s origins in Ireland. The Gaelic phrase “uisge beatha” literally means “water of life.” Then the Scots borrowed the phrase and changed it to “usquebaugh,” before the English shortened that to “whiskey.”
A discussion of Irish whiskey generally leads to the two big names; Jameson and Bushmills. Now if you’re a good Irish lad or lass, this is an easy choice determined not by taste but by religion. You see Jameson is from Dublin, and if the roots of your family tree are in Dublin, chances are you are Catholic. But Bushmills, while it is a fine whiskey, is distilled in Northern Ireland and that means Protestant. Put another way, Irish Catholics often say that whiskeys from the North “are filtered through the wrong bible.” Order the wrong brand in a stubbornly patriotic Irish bar and you might end up in fight. Who knew ordering a drink could cause such a ruckus?
I don’t want to start any battles, so I’ll just call it Irish whiskey and let you decide which brand (and church) will make yours. For years, I thought of whiskey as primarily a man’s drink. Not to sound sexist, but a whiskey on the rocks can be an acquired taste, and maybe it’s just the women I know, but they have tended to stay away from the brown liquor. But recently I’ve noticed a lot of women ordering Irish whiskey – my wife and my sister among them. The drink that has lured them? Irish whiskey and ginger ale. I’ve seen it called a Big Ginger, a Phlump or a Classy Irishman. Call it what you like, it’s a simple cocktail to make and a great alternative to a boring rum and Coke.
But I digress, St. Patrick’s Day isn’t all about drinking, it is also the time when everyone makes corned beef and cabbage, just exactly the way their Irish forbearers didn’t. That’s right; the corned beef we all associate with this distinctly Irish holiday isn’t a big deal in Ireland. Back in the motherland, they probably would have eaten bacon and cabbage and their pork in the dish would have been more like what we call Canadian bacon. Confused? When the Irish immigrants got to this side of the pond, they simple couldn’t afford the more expensive pork, so they substituted cheaper salted and cured cuts of beef. And the tradition was born, not out of heritage, but necessity. So where would Irish Americans get their corned beef? From a good Jewish delicatessen, of course, because their culture has been kosher curing beef brisket for centuries.
While corned beef and cabbage get all the glory this time of year, it’s not the only meal with Gaelic roots. A rich shepherd’s pie is just about the perfect comfort food and if you want to make it special for the holiday, throw a little Guinness in the gravy. Add a couple of slices of soda bread with caraway seeds and currants and you have a bona fide Irish feast.
I think this year, we’ll head down to watch the parade, but when the young (and young and heart) move inside for a green-tinted Miller Lite, we’ll head for home and stay out of the fray. On the way home, we will pick up a Shamrock Shake for Kara, then I’ll open a pint of dark, rich extra stout beer for myself. I’ll make a pot of savory lamb stew. After dinner, we’ll tip back a wee bit of Irish whiskey, (mine on the rocks, hers with ginger ale) and remember that underneath our green sweaters, we’re just a Welsh boy married to a Scandinavian girl.
Do yourself a favor, eat something good today.
This article originally ran on the March 2011 issue of Etc. for Her magazine.