Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Although it is easy for me to write with an unmitigated enthusiasm on the subject of fine food and its preparation, I thought long and hard about daring to use the word “sorcery” in the title of this column, hinting as the word does at something magical and arcane. In fact I twice retreated from such literary boldness before admitting that I was merely being honest with myself. There is something magical about foods which grow out of long human history, explicit geography, and rich tradition. Mrs.Novak’s Hungarian goulash, Senora Barbanti’s rich tomato pasta sauce, Anna Schmidt’s stuffed beef roulade and Esteban Majilla’s six-chili moli far surpass in my culinary memory box any “gourmet” event served up in the finest of grand restaurants. The mystique those examples all have in common arises from their origin in a home kitchen, from family recipes hoary with history, the loving assembly of the simplest of ingredients, and the humble, devoted and respectful tables at which they were shared.
            Ireland is not only a land rich in tradition, but a country whose history is bound up with struggle and hard times. A scrutiny of their most honored dishes reveals a respect for basic but sometimes- limited food resources and a thoughtful economy in preparation and dining lore.  The institution known as the “Pub” throughout the United Kingdom is something more than the American “tavern” or “bar”, and more than the “licensed public house” dispensing alcoholic beverages it started out to be a century or two ago. In Ireland, for instance, it is a place where both adults and children may gather for an evening of fun, friendship and the music of local musicians; and perhaps the last refuge of traditional food well and simply prepared and served in a public setting. Perhaps the best description I can come up with for such a dining experience is one made by Australian food author Loukie Werle in her book Cucina Povera when she writes of “eating plentifully and with a warm heart”.
            Although I have never visited Ireland (or the British Isles for that matter) in person, I regularly make the journey by way of my library, pantry and kitchen. I am serious enough about traditional corned beef for instance that I regularly brine-cure selected beef cuts in a basement crock, while Irish Soda Bread is a frequent staple at our table. When sitting down to a table set with Irish “Pub” fare, it is often done against a background of Enya singing “NA LAETHA GEAL M’Ă“IGE”, or the latest “CELTIC WOMAN” CD.

Title photo above:
Filled with plump golden raisins and the slight acidity of two cups of buttermilk, my favorite “Irish Soda Bread” offers up the virtue of being quick to make, having no yeast and the need for rising time, and a blend of both whole wheat and regular bread flour. Eggs, brown sugar and a tablespoon each of baking soda and baking powder and you have the basics. Of course a true Irishman would add just a touch of whiskey to plump the raisins (and bake away in a 350 degree oven).

At the heart of a “Pub:”-style ploughman’s lunch might be found a savory meat pie, a marriage of slow-roasted beef tips, onions and vegetables capped off with a favorite pie crust (my wife’s contribution in this case). In a true Irish “Pub”, the flour-dredged meat would do its roasting in beef broth fortified with a cup of Guinness stout; optional of course, but worth the effort.

For a hefty, nutritious and sturdy loaf of farmstead-style Irish bread, nothing comes close to this nearly-three-pound “magnum” of oat-and-potato bread, boasting a moist and tender crumb and a crispy exterior with a satisfying crunch. It is a long-keeper in the bread drawer and makes resoundingly good toast in the bargain. Mashed potatoes, old fashion rolled oats and a blend of flours react wonderfully to yeast, salt, butter and dry skim milk.
Photos by Al Cooper


The U.S. Congress did us no favor it seems to me, when in its 1971 wisdom it passed the “Holiday Act”, assigning Monday as the established day for national days of commemoration and celebration; an idea pushed by labor unions and other lobbying groups looking for more “three-day-paid” holidays, deciding for us in the process that established traditions and generational ideals mattered for little. One of the inevitable consequences, was the erosion of long-held cultural values and a sense of lost continuity in cherished and familiar acts of community.
            Of all national celebrations, what has come to be known as “Memorial Day” is unique, in that it came from The People; it was “invented” simultaneously by citizens – mostly women – in many parts of a nation recently decimated by Civil War, and the untimely death of nearly 750,000 of our own people. By the end of 1865, women in Charleston, South Carolina, Richmond, Virginia, Waterloo, New York and dozens of other towns, small and large were seeking ways to “remember” those they had lost.  Known at first as “Decoration Day” and observed every May 30th, it was a time when entire families visited and tended cemeteries and honored their revered dead.  Ironically, my earliest memory of our family’s tradition is of a parade in which white-bearded veterans of the Civil War (members of The Grand Army of the Republic), still rode.

As autumn filled a cool bright day,
And breezes blew old cares away,
Our ambling footsteps somehow led,
To places often glimpsed with dread:
A country graveyard – gate askew,
Its’ grassy slopes still bright with dew,
Seemed just the place to spend some hours,
With old stone walls and stray fall flowers.

At first we thought of just such things:
The charm that sweet nostalgia brings;
The quiet pleasures of being afield . . .
Drinking in all that October can yield.
And then. . . we began to read what was said,
By those who had come here to honor their dead.
On limestone tablet and granite bier,
Important things were written here.

Between the lines of chiseled script,
A glimpse of timeless sentiment slipped.
We saw the enduring nature of love;
A faith that our loved ones await us above.
We read of great loyalty, of loneliness deep;
Of the void that is left by those who sleep.
On lichen-splashed monuments centuries old,
A record of human devotion is told.

Wind-rippled flags add a touch of pride,
And a love of country that time cannot hide.
In muffled cadence the heroes march,
To drums whose beat the centuries arch;
And those they loved who homeward had waited,
Now lie at their side as bonds had fated.
Their story is written in more than mere stone;
It lives on today in our own flesh and bone.

As the circling sun defined our day,
And our random hours measured away,
The rows of canted stones had spoken,
In ways that seemed much more than token.
Our minds were filled with a need to recall,
The lessons we’d learned on a walk in the fall:
On limestone tablet and granite bier. . .
Important things are written here.

© Al Cooper

 Photo by Al Cooper