WRITTEN ON March 17th, 2011 BY Meredith AND STORED IN Cheese, Holiday, Potato, Side Dish

Much is made of corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day. But to me, there is nothing more truly Irish than the potato.

Don’t get me wrong, I love me some corned beef.  It’s flavorful and salty, and tender to the bone. The problem is, it’s not really Irish.  It’s English.  Or Jewish.  Or, frankly, American.

A little St. Paddy’s Day food history lesson, shall we? The abridged, tongue-in-cheek version.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries in Ireland, the wily English were up to their usual tricks. Colonizing, kicking the native population off their lands and bringing in their own lords and customs to reign supreme.  In Ireland, dairy cows had been grazing verdant pastures for years, but the English had a taste for beef and used the abundant green pastureland almost exclusively for cattle. They created a burgeoning beef industry, setting up corning (salting) factories in Cork and the south coast of Ireland. The problem (besides the eventual lack of potatoes) was that the beef was too expensive for your average Irish peasant to afford, and most of it was exported to England anyway.

This left precious little farm-able land for the actual Irish people. They were resigned to farming small, rocky, undesirable plots for a couple hundred years, making the Irish peasants (originally more accustomed to grains) almost completely dependent on the potato, which was about the only thing they could grow in such conditions. All it took was the introduction of a potato blight and you have what we now know of as the Great Famine, resulting in a veritable diaspora of Irish people to the New World.

The tradition of corned beef and cabbage is inherently American. When the Irish immigrants arrived in this country looking for a better life, many ended up living in slums and tenements, barely scraping by and being treated like the second (or third) class citizens they were viewed to be. The upside was that here they could actually afford small amounts of beef for special occasions.

In neighborhoods like New York’s Lower East Side, immigrants from all walks of life struggled side by side.  And it turns out that the Jewish residents of the Lower East Side knew a thing or two about salted beef (ummmm, ever eaten at Katz’s Deli?  It’s been around since 1888 for good reason. Best pastrami and corned beef in the world.  Period.  Full stop), and they sold it inexpensively.  So it was here, in America, that the true Irish (not the gentrified English-Irish) started partaking in corned beef for celebrations, because for the first time, it was made relatively available to them, and because it was considered such an “Old World” luxury.  They paired it with cabbage, which was largely available year round, cheap and kept everyone from getting scurvy.

But when I think of the true Irish, the people like my 5 times great-grandmother Crotty, left behind because they were too old or too sick to make the trip, I think of potatoes.  So it’s in their honor, using my Irish-Catholic grandmother’s cast iron pan, that I make these scalloped potatoes to celebrate part of my heritage (after all, the other part of Irish cuisine I love so much is dairy: cream, cheddar, butter, mmmm).  Like I said, I love corned beef and cabbage and what it stands for here in this country – the spirit of a people in search of a better life and a dream – but I also wanted to take time to honor those brave Irish souls who stayed behind to fight for the Ireland we know today.

Such is the way of things in this vast melting pot (or salad bowl?) of a country.  Over the years the Irish would work to a place of prominence. No doubt my ancestors who came into Castle Clinton (New York immigration point pre-Ellis Island) from Ballingarry, Ireland in search of a better life would be blown away by the size and scope of the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The Irish immigrants who brought their lyrical, funny, hard-working selves here would be humbled by the pride that Irish-Americans feel today. It was on their backs that much of the American dream was built. They exemplified courage, fight, and candor while puling themselves up by their boot straps and proving to all the naysayers that they were in fact something very, very special.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to my fellow Irish-Americans.  And to the rest of you, may the road rise to meet you…and may the luck of the Irish be with you today and every day!

Famine no more

Irish Cheddar Scalloped Potatoes (serves 6-8 as a side dish)
3 lbs russet baking potatoes, peeled and sliced thin
3 shallots, chopped fine
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup milk
2 cups grated Irish cheddar (or you could use a mix of cheddar, Gruyere and Parm, but not on St. Paddy’s Day)
2 tbsp butter, cut into small cubes
non-stick cooking spray
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350. In a heavy cast iron pan over medium heat, melt a small piece of butter and coat pan with cooking spray. Add shallots, sweat until soft and translucent. Add potatoes, cream, milk and half of cheese, stirring gently.  Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat.  Cover with tin foil and bake about 30 minutes in oven.  Remove foil, top with remaining cheese and dot with the cubes of butter. Bake another 15-20 minutes until cheese is golden and bubbly and potatoes are soft.

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