Saint Patrick’s Day is an interesting holiday. It is one I have enjoyed celebrating my entire life. I am 25 percent Irish and over the years, I remember my mother repeating many Irish phrases. One of them stands out among the others. “There are two types of people in this world. Those who are Irish and those who wish they were.” Never is this sentiment more appropriate than on March 17th. As we approach yet another St. Patrick’s Day, I decided to delve into the family traditions a little further to understand exactly why we do, what we do every year.
The history begins with the Catholic Church. Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland. March 17 was designated as his feast day in the 1600s. The date was chosen to coincide with the Easter season, and at one point, it was a holy day of obligation in the church. Aside from that, much of what we know about Saint Patrick and the holiday we celebrate today is a subject of great debate.
There are a few facts taken from Saint Patrick’s autobiography,Confession. He was actually born in England and his father was a Roman official. One of the few things rarely disputed is the fact that he championed Christianity. Other concepts, such as the notion that he drove the snakes out of Ireland, or that he used the shamrock to teach about the Trinity, may just be blarney. No one knows for sure.
Truth be told, much of the celebrating we do today is purely American-based fun. For instance, in Ireland they would never consider ruining a mug Guinness beer with green food coloring. They are also more likely to consume fish stew than eat corned beef and cabbage. Be that as it may, bars across the United States will serve green beer on March 17. Additionally, many homes will be filled with the aroma of corned beef brisket, boiled cabbage, potatoes, and soda bread from a bread machine.
So if these traditions do not stem from the Emerald Isle, where do they come from? Well the salting of beef brisket did actually occur in Ireland, but only for the purposes of export. Most of the cows in Ireland were kept expressly for dairy. The truth is when the Irish immigrants settled in America in the 19th century, they were very poor and they ate what they could come by cheaply. Salted (or corned) beef and green cabbage were cheap ingredients at that time.
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What about the color green? Green is commonly associated with the holiday, despite the fact that blue was originally associated with Saint Patrick. During the 17th century, green became affiliated with the holiday because the shamrock is green, and folklore said that Patrick used the shamrock to describe the Trinity. The phrase “wearing of the green” specifically relates to wearing a shamrock on your lapel. Later, the expectation to wear green clothing was added. Some explanations point to the tale of a leprechaun; others suggest a sign of political solidarity among Irish Americans. Either way, if you do not wear green, you can expect to be pinched by your Irish friends.
The history of green beer is a little more nebulous. As I mentioned before, you will not find them tinting their Guinness beer in Ireland. The earliest documented use of food coloring in beer was on American college campuses in the 1950s.
One tradition does stem from Ireland: the consumption of soda bread. Soda bread was easy to make in the climate and it did not require yeast. It was originally made with bicarbonate of soda, thus earning it the name of soda bread. It also did not require an oven. It was commonly made in a cast iron griddle by the hearth. The plain variety was consumed at many meals. It was sturdy bread great for soaking up gravy. The variety you see in the grocery store today has raisins and is more of a cake.
These traditions, as many others in this country, have developed over time. America is rich in history from so many heritages. Much of what we do today is actually Americanized versions of something else. So, regardless of your ancestry, if you want to celebrate on March 17, go right ahead. You won’t be alone. It is one of our country’s most popular holidays. Put on something green and celebrate with the rest of us.
Here are some recipes for celebrating the Irish-American way. Beannacht Lá Fhéile Pádraig, or in other words, Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!
CORNED BEEF AND CABBAGE RECIPE
Make a traditional Irish American immigrant meal of corned beef and cabbage. Buy a corned beef brisket complete with peppercorn seasoning packet. Place the meat and seasoning in a large pot and cover with water. After it boils, skim off the fat and move the brisket to a large pan with a lid. Pour the remaining fat-free broth over the meat in the pan. Place the pan in an oven that has been preheated to 325 degrees. Cover meat and cook one hour per pound. Baste hourly. Serve with boiled cabbage and boiled red potatoes.
IRISH SODA BREAD RECIPE
Make Irish soda bread to serve with the meal or to eat as a breakfast cake. There are many varieties. The recipe I use is made by sifting together 4 cups of flour with 3 Tablespoons of sugar and 1 teaspoon each of baking soda and salt. Make a well in the center of the dry mixture and pour in 2 cups of buttermilk beaten with one egg. Use a wooden spoon to mix the ingredients together. Once it is thoroughly mixed, knead the dough for 10 – 15 minutes and form a round ball. Place the dough on a cookie sheet and use the best kitchen utility knife to cut an “X” in the top of the ball. Brush with an additional tablespoon of melted butter. Cook for 30 minutes in an oven preheated to 400 degrees. For the cake-like version: add one cup of raisins to the mixture before kneading the dough. (I pre-soak the raisins in 2 tablespoons of vanilla extract for one hour.)
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HOW TO MAKE GREEN BEER OR SODA
If you choose to drink a green beverage, all you need is a little food coloring. For best results, put 1 to 3 drops of green food coloring in the bottom of a glass and add the beverage of your choice. For darker beverages, you will need more food coloring.
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