by Taffy Cannon
Sometimes tradition overtakes you when you’re not really paying attention, and so it has been with the St. Patrick’s Day dinner.
I can’t remember exactly when the event morphed from being corned beef for my husband and me on March 17th into an annual party for a few close friends and relatives. Somewhere between Dallas and LA, I guess, when we migrated toward the sun in the late 70s. But I can definitely date its traditionhood to about fifteen years ago when the holiday began to require its own box in the attic to store various Celtic CDs, shamrock-bedecked accoutrements, green bowls, and Irishwear that includes a Kelly green sweater emblazoned with shamrocks. I wear it with a button that reads: God created whiskey to keep the Irish from ruling the world.
The guest list has varied over the years, and some of my more peripatetic friends have drifted in and out a couple of times. On occasion, somebody planning to pass through town anyway has even timed a trip to show up right after the Ides of March. Like so much of life in Southern California, it’s a multicultural gathering, albeit one leaning heavily toward folks with roots in Ireland or Chicago or both.
We’ve probably never had even twenty guests, including children. The menu never changes and is anything but fancy: spiced corned beef brisket, boiled with potatoes, onions, carrots, and red and green cabbage. Sour cream and horseradish. Chips and dip with veggies beforehand, maybe with some other appetizer that a guest brings. A minimalist dessert on the order of ice cream.
Some years when I have the time and feel like putting on the dog, I make Irish soda bread. Most of my friends prefer the tarted-up versions with currants and caraway seeds, more cake than bread, and indeed authentic soda bread is something of an acquired taste, kissing kin to hardtack. I am pretty sure that gluten-free soda bread would break teeth and am therefore not dumb enough to waste expensive GF ingredients on it, though come to think of it, I do need more garden pavers.
And of course people drink. It’s St. Patrick’s Day.
Somebody generally shows up with Guinness or Harp, maybe a minikeg of microbrew. Others bring wine. Being polite people, we all partake in these shared offerings. But despite the well-deserved reputation of St. Patrick’s celebrations, for the most part all my rowdy friends have settled down.
One reason I know this for a fact is that there is always leftover beer, two words that I would never have thought to pair in my twenties.
This is probably a good time to point out that I’m not even all that Irish.
My paternal grandfather, who died before I was born, was a flaming redhead born to parents fresh off the boat from County Mayo. My father’s cousin, the family nun, once told me that it was such a poor part of a notoriously impoverished country that folks would invariably say, “We’re from County Mayo, God help us.”
My Irish grandfather and Czech grandmother hauled themselves up the American dream ladder rung by rung as he built a flourishing medical practice on Chicago’s South Side, doing sufficiently well to keep four boys in private school during the Depression. I once found a menu they printed for their own St. Patrick’s Day party, and it was a good deal fancier (and a whole lot more pretentious) than mine.
In any event, I’m technically only a quarter Irish, but it’s a very pushy quarter.
Nor do I live in any kind of Irish community, though the local Catholic church is called St. Patrick’s. People in SoCal celebrate all sorts of holidays, however, and it always amuses me to see what passes for St. Patrick’s attire in these parts: teal sweaters, chartreuse sneakers, lime scarves.
Certainly nobody has ever come up with anything to rival the Kelly green suit my husband wore for a number of years.
When I was a kid in Chicago, I remember my family eating corned beef a few times a year and that it was a relatively big deal. My father’s office nurse was married to a technician at a meat company, and occasionally she’d bring us a beautiful slab of corned brisket. We’d eat that whenever it showed up, in shameless displays of gluttony. But I don’t recall any hoopla about St. Patrick’s Day, or about eating corned beef then.
Ours was not a household governed (or even occasionally visited) by haute cuisine, and quite frankly what I extrapolated from those corned beef dinners was a sense that there couldn’t possibly be anything difficult about them.
Then I got out into the world and discovered that a whole lot of people manage to mess it up. They try to bake it, or use some chi-chi rub or topping. Mostly, I think, they just don’t cook it long enough. I simmer mine in a canning kettle of spiced water for hours and hours, until the meat peels off in threads. Then I cook the vegetables in the same water. And for the occasional vegetarian, I boil vegetables in spiced fresh water unadulterated by animal flesh.
People fill plates at a buffet, then sit on couches, or at tables, or wherever. In the beginning, a lot of folks sat on the floor, but my contemporaries don’t do that much anymore, perhaps because it’s so damned hard to get back up.
I had to postpone the party this year, because my household was beset by various non-electronic viruses. And while I hated to put it off there was ample precedent for unorthodox calendaring. When my daughter was in college, St. Patrick’s Day always came at an awkward point in the spring quarter, and so a couple of times we just waited till she came home in early summer and did it then.
In fact, last year we put it off until mid-August, after my brother died a few days before St. Patrick’s Day. March 17, 2012, found me eating corned beef and cabbage with my daughter in a restaurant called Covered in Chocolate in a small town in Southern Illinois. She wore her South Side Irish t-shirt and the corned beef was a lot better than I expected.
By the time we got around to the actual St. Patrick’s Day party, we were in the midst of what passes for a heat wave in these parts and it was too hot to even eat in the house, where vats of boiling water had churned all day. But the longer days of summer meant we could manage quite nicely on the patio and in the yard, and so we did.
The informality is innate at this point, and this has never been a seated meal anyway, except for the year when a special friend was dying. We pared the guest list to make her more comfortable and all sat around a proper dinner table.
A very maudlin, appropriately Irish reminiscence.
The memories blur and fuse and intermingle, which probably has something to do with all that Guinness. The St. Patrick’s Day party has become, in my mind, a series of sometimes interconnected moments in different eras and with different players, all heavily accented in Kelly green.
One year my friend Mary Ellen, a full-blooded Irish Chicagoan and consequently a twofer at the party, suddenly broke into Irish dance. The background music is always Irish-themed, Celtic interpreted as my husband likes it, which means equal parts great authenticity and Van Morrison. But it’s generally just that: background music.
I’d known Mary Ellen about a year and we’d compared our Chicago childhoods in dysfunctional medical families. But I had no idea that as a child she had attended classes to learn the fancy footwork that she now tried—with minimal success—to teach the rest of us. I’ve never been much of a Riverdance enthusiast, but while this was happening spontaneously in my own living room, it was pretty darned cool.
Still, nothing can top the legendary occasion when our teacher friend Tim, a very Irish SoCal native, brought a woman he was serious about. Erna, who has now been his wife for some three decades, hadn’t yet met most of this particular group of Tim’s friends. She was a little nervous about it all.
A dozen or so folks were jockeying for space in our tiny Venice living room, loading plates and then seeking spots with room to set down a plate and a beer bottle. Erna started across the room with her plate, and at this point the sequence of events becomes a bit fuzzy, varying according to who’s doing the remembering.
The outcome, however, remains crystal clear to everyone.
Erna’s entire corned beef dinner slid neatly into Martha’s purse.
May your glass be ever full. May the roof over your head be always strong. And may you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.
–Irish toast and blessing (these also tend to intermingle)