I spent my life believing I was Irish. My grandmother’s family immigrated from Ireland and the proof hung proudly in a frame on the wall in her brother’s living room – County Cork to New York, New York; 1922. I stood looking at it once, this yellowing paper in a frame – finding it incredibly strange that something like a government issued form would be considered a work of art. But, to our family, it was. It was proof of how far they had come, and a reminder to never forget where their roots were planted. It’s a conflict that perhaps all immigrant families feel, this pull of two different lands, two different homes.
In my family, St. Patrick’s Day was celebrated with the zeal of something akin to Christmas. There was a feast, naturally. It was planned out weeks and sometimes months ahead of time. The table was set with my grandmother’s finest China and crystal. There were wines from France and California. A charcuterie platter with Italian sausages, cheeses from Wisconsin and Greek olives. Of course, the star of the meal was something Irish – colcannon with a heavy Irish stewed lamb, shepherd’s pie, or corned beef with the spiciest horseradish known to man, homegrown in my grandfather’s garden and prepared by him from a secret recipe. The meal would have been concluded with something green, like Jello – lime, of course, which I absolutely hated. My grandmother was a big fan of Jello, and served it in etched coupe glasses. The same ones, in fact, that I serve my cocktails in today. Each serving would be dolloped with a huge spoonful of whipped cream – or Cool Whip Whipped Topping to be more exact. Which I also hated. Really, our St. Patrick’s Day feast was a strange mishmash of cultures and flavors that influenced our lives. But to my grandmother it was everything she loved; therefore, it was all Irish.
“Kiss me, I’m Irish!” she’d laugh, proud as a peacock, “And so are you!” Planting a big, wet Irish grandmother’s kiss on my cheek. Then she’d take my shoulders in her hands and look me straight in the eyes and say, suddenly very stern, “And don’t ever forget it.” I had to wonder if she was scared of losing that part of herself to this crazy American life.
I never did forget it. Through the years it became much of my identity. I married an Irish man and we gave our son a good, traditional Irish name – Connor: “lover of dogs” – and so appropriate. So when, on a whim, I took one of those Ancestry DNA tests to determine from where else my descendants may have traveled, imagine my surprise at finding that I was only slightly Irish. Nine percent, actually! And while I don’t believe that ancestry has any bearing on who someone is as a person, after all we are all humans and citizens of the world, the knowledge hit me rather hard and I went through a bit of a mini-identity crisis. I traded what I thought were Irish roots, for what turned out to be French – but really, I’m more like the mishmash of my grandmother’s St. Patrick’s Day meals. A little of this, a little of that. And still very proud of my nine percent and of the family that gave it to me.
I got up early this morning to start the soda bread. Next I’ll make a corned beef brisket with cabbage, and boiled potatoes. As for the bread, it’s totally non-traditional with caraway seeds and raisins because that’s the way I like it. For dessert, Irish coffee, made the traditional way with just coffee, Irish whiskey and a little brown sugar. It’s only slightly sweet, and so satisfying after a big meal. And for the kids, a few cookies. We’ll skip the green jello, altogether.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
(makes two drinks)
2 TBSP good quality coffee
2 cups boiling water
1/4 tsp almond extract
3 tsp brown sugar
3 oz Irish whiskey (I like Tullamore D.E.W.)
sweetened whipped cream
Place the coffee in a French press and add the boiling water. Steep for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, fill two mugs with hot tap water to pre-heat.
Before pressing, add the almond extract to the coffee.
Place 1.5 tsp brown sugar and 1.5 oz. Irish whiskey in each mug. Pour in the coffee and stir. Top with whipped cream.