Kage Baker didn’t care for St. Patrick’s Day.
She didn’t like corned beef – too salty, too fatty, and the cooking method – boiling – was something she felt should never be applied to beef. This, mind you, despite her personal dedication to historical authenticity and the British Navy – eating boiled salt beef, she felt, was just taking the whole obsession too far.
And neither one of us could sanction drinking green beer. No one ever tries it on Guiness anyway. The stuff is too dark for the dye to show … we didn’t like the way Americans usually celebrate this day.
Anyway, as long as one of us was eating the traditional food, historicity was served. And I love corned beef. Kage had a deep fondness for boiled potatoes and cabbage, so I would have my salt beef and she would have a nice broiled steak, and we’d share the tatties and cabbage. Although, in her firm conviction that boiled beef was disgusting, she insisted that all the vegetables be boiled in clean, segregated, non-beef-containing water …
Traditionally, of course, they’re all thrown into a pot together and boiled to death. Ideally, the potatoes and the cabbage should have pretty much the same firmness – which is none at all. Knives should not be needed for this meal … on anything. As Kage liked it, though, the cabbage was barely cooked and the potatoes still had an enviable density. I didn’t mind; my own fondness for this meal is enormous enough to encompass any variation in the preparation of the ingredients.
So Kimberly and I do it the old-fashioned way. You could probably eat this meal without teeth, as long as you have the hand-eye coordination to cut the beef into teeny bits. The flavour is astonishing and rich and wild, not a civilized taste at all – rainwater and cold stone are in it, green grass thick on hillsides whose soil is still radiating winter cold, sea winds and peat smoke and the perfume of domestic treason in the beef that was probably liberated from some oppressive Englishman.
Nor is this a meal eaten only for ritual purposes. My family (Kage aside; and niece Annie who has gone vegetarian) loves corned beef. This time of year, it’s sold as a sacred meat: at insanely low prices, at 2-for 1; with free cabbages and bags of discount potatoes thrown in. A dedicated shopping party with three members can come away with a half-dozen hunks of salt beef a day for about a week … so we stockpile ’em. We will be happily eating corned beef and cabbage and boiled potatoes in July, if we’re careful how we eke them out.
But tonight – well, it is the Saint’s Day; and we do have Irish ancestors. We’ve got Welsh ones too, though, and Scots as well – and not only are salt beef and cheap veggies not restricted to Ireland, St. Patrick himself was probably originally from Wales. We watch The Quiet Man while we eat our boiled dinner, and toast everyone even remotely involved as we do so.
I hope all of you, Dear Readers, have a good time and a good dinner tonight. You might give a little thought to the fact that this meal is a traditional because the land of its origin could rarely afford beef, and then not fresh; salt beef is for poor people and good preservation. Try to remember that good beer shouldn’t be green. Try to remember that bad beer is nothing to drink to celebrate a country that’s done marvellous things with barley.
And drink to the martyrs on every side with love in your heart – don’t think you should honour the saint of the day with a fight. Share a good meal with your friends and families and be grateful for the food on your plate. That’s a lot more Irish.