On Saints, Shamrocks, and Subsistence Living

Robin Seeley  Farrah, Julian, Enzo and Abby can confirm that reports of Elvis’s death have been greatly exaggerated. The King returned to supervise the latest session of the Culinary Academy of Post Street.

On Saints, Shamrocks, and Subsistence Living

To the East End & Beyond

Try as we might, we couldn’t conjure up the historic St. Patrick for the seventh monthly session of the Culinary Academy of Post Street. But another legendary figure miraculously appeared in his place, as the picture proves. The King of Rock ’n‘ Roll (Elvis Presley) was wary of sharing typical St. Patrick’s Day festivities with children, however. He wisely steered us away from Irish beverages and tales of drunken revelry. Abby, Enzo, Farrah and Julian focused instead on the cuisine of the Emerald Isle. And yes, potatoes were prominent.

Ireland is known as the Emerald Isle because it gets lots of rain and is very green. That means plenty of grass for grazing cows. Therefore it’s no surprise, as Irish food historian Bríd Mahon has noted, that “cattle were the cornerstone of the economy.” That’s how the Irish got their corned beef and dairy products. 

If cows provided the cornerstone, then the potato was the primary pillar. Legend has it that Sir Walter Raleigh planted the first spuds in Ireland in 1585, after they were introduced to Europe from Peru. Because potatoes provide a much higher yield than the previously prevalent grains, such as wheat, oats and barley, they quickly became the farmers’ favorite. 

It didn’t hurt that they were healthy and delicious, too. Poor Irish people soon stopped cultivating any other crop and subsisted almost exclusively on potatoes and milk for centuries. They thrived on that limited diet. Indeed, potatoes propelled population growth to 8 million by 1845.

Because the Irish propagated potatoes by planting the “eyes” of the previous year’s harvest, they created a “monoculture” of genetically identical plants. The lack of genetic diversity in their staple crop left it extremely vulnerable to a plague of epic proportions. When the potato blight hit in 1845, it turned previously flourishing fields into a “wide waste of putrefying vegetation,” as Father Mathew told the Irish Relief Commission. 

That’s one reason we have 80 million fellow Americans of Irish descent. They fled to the United States and Canada by the boatload to escape the widespread famine. One of the refugees hailed from the tiny village of Moneygall; Fulmoth Kearney, our president’s great-great-great grandfather. By 1850, U.S. immigration records show that New York City had more Irish-born residents than Dublin. 

To wrap their heads (and stomachs). around the notion of a diet based almost exclusively on dairy and potato products, the kids inspected two special food samplers and graded the individual items on a special report card. One sampler featured foods from the udder: butter, buttermilk, cottage cheese, cheese, cream, ice cream and yogurt. 

Which dairy product got the highest marks? Hint: it was melting. The other sampler showcased many different ways to prepare the humble potato: oven-roasted, mashed, boiled, baked, and yes, even potato pancakes, French fries and potato chips. For some reason, the mashed potatoes got two thumbs down, but the potato chips disappeared instantly.

Even the dirt-poor Irish got to have a taste of corned beef when it came time to slaughter an old cow, so we tried that, too (the beef, not the slaughtering). The kids weren’t fond of the gristle, but they did love it tender.

Finally, under our celebrity guest’s watchful eye, the wee ones worked on a final project in memory of St. Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint. While converting the Celts in Ireland to Christianity, St. Patrick struggled to explain how the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost were three-in-one. The early Irish originally worshipped more than one god, so they saw the Trinity as three different deities. This was a stumbling block on the path to Christian monotheism. St. Patrick discovered a brilliant way to hit this point home: the three-part shamrock. It showed how a living thing could be three-in-one. The kids will never forget this story after baking edible shamrocks. They put three separate balls of dough into a muffin tin and watched how they morphed into one yummy, triple treat.

After our March session, Abby, Enzo, Farrah, and Julian can now better appreciate this traditional Irish blessing:

For every petal on the shamrock,
This brings a wish your way:
Good luck, good health, and happiness,
Today and every day.

To learn more about St. Patrick, see the excellent history by Gil Michaels published in the Alameda Sun two years ago at this link: http://alamedasun.com/news/make-st-patrick’s-day-more-saintly-year

With special thanks to Tina Carroll for generously sharing her Irish heritage and insight.

Robin Seeley is an Alameda resident and the dean of the Culinary Academy of Post Street.