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Where's the corned beef?

For St. Patrick's Day, Irish native Matty Murphy and family turn to traditional fare

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Keri Fisher and Matty Murphy
Globe Correspondents / March 12, 2008

Today, the food of Ireland is a far cry from the tinned corned beef and processed foods Matty grew up with. Still, when he owned Matt Murphy's Pub in Brookline and later Stone's Public House in Ashland, he offered his version of corned beef on St. Patrick's Day menus, so he's eaten his share of the salty meat.

But that's not how he cooks when he wants Irish food. At home with our children, and on St. Patrick's Day, we turn to traditional dishes such as lamb stew. Add a hearty brown soda bread and a slice of juicy blackberry pie in a flaky crust, and you have a meal that might have been served a century ago in a more rustic form. Today, it's part of Ireland's new cuisine. Like chefs here, cooks in Ireland use local ingredients with modern cooking techniques, but they haven't forgotten traditional dishes such as lamb stew, bacon and cabbage, spiced beef, and fruit pies.

When Matty moved to the US from West Cork 20 years ago, he hadn't seen anything like our St. Patrick's Day. St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, and at home, the day was marked with solemnity: church followed by a traditional family dinner. In fact, up until the late 1970s, bars and pubs were closed in Ireland on March 17 (shocking but true). The holiday as we know it was only recently adopted in Ireland as a way to showcase the culture.

That's a far cry from the beer-fueled festivities of today's holiday, which went from religious to the biggest sales day in Irish pubs across America.

The first St. Patrick's Day parade was held in Boston in 1737. New York followed several years later; all saw it as a way for Irish immigrants to honor their heritage. Here in America, that heritage was morphing into a new Irish-American culture.

So was Irish-American cuisine, which focused on foods available here. Beef was a luxury at home; cows were kept for their milk, but steer (known as bullocks in Ireland) were raised mostly for export. The cured meat of choice was bacon, which referred to any cured pork. Irish in America found beef plentiful, so corned beef and cabbage was born. Like St. Patrick's Day, the Irish-Americans made it their own.

Throughout Ireland today, dependence on processed foods is waning, and the packets of instant white sauce that once filled every cupboard are being replaced with foods grown in the countryside. Artisan cheese makers are spreading out from Cork across Ireland. There's a new appreciation for the foods that were once subsistence.

Mackerel, for instance, is plentiful around the small West Cork island where Matty grew up (and where his father and five of his siblings still live). So plentiful, in fact, that our 3-year-old son, Declan, caught a dozen his first time out (with a little help from his Uncle Mike). When Matty was a boy, the mackerel was fried into oblivion. Today everyone on the island has a proprietary method. On our last visit, smoked mackerel was all the rage. At the pubs, locals debated the merits of applewood versus hickory like the generation before might have debated the merits of Paddy's or Powers whiskey (Paddy's makes you fight, Powers makes you sing - or so the saying goes).

Besides mackerel, you can get prawns, lobster, and salmon, all sent to market within hours after they're caught.

One thing that hasn't changed is the potato, which is still a staple of the diet. When we visit Matty's family every year, we eat lots of potatoes. With every meal. Lots and lots of potatoes. Before the potato famine of the 1840s, the average Irish person ate 10 to 12 pounds daily - and little else. Even today, supermarkets sell potatoes in 25- and 50-pound bags, not the wimpy 5-pounders you get here. In fact, the potato in Ireland is so revered, some compare the much-anticipated appearance of new potatoes in early summer to that of the November release of Beaujolais Nouveau in France.

The fertile Irish soil is also perfect for growing grains and the grassy countryside a natural fit for cattle, sheep, and pigs.

Matty has lived in this country longer than he lived in Ireland, and his siblings joke that he's more American than Irish. Our sons, Declan and Ronan, and Matty's daughters, Michela, Ciara, and Snowy, are all Irish-American. Matty hopes they'll embrace their heritage.

Two decades ago, within a week of arriving here, Matty was asked for an immigrant's view of St. Patrick's Day. In Ireland, he said, "My Da made me go to Mass on St. Patrick's Day and the only corned beef I ate came in a can."

Maybe he is more American than Irish now.

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