Three St. Patrick’s Day Treats: Irish Coffee, Irish Soda Bread, and the Dubliners.
Irish pickup line: Darlin’ if you won’t come home with me the leprechauns have already won!
Nearly 33 million Americans identify as Irish. That’s seven times more than there are Irish people in Ireland. Now here we all go again on St. Patrick’s Day. It’s the holiday that puts the fun in dysfunctional. Boiled dinner, Irish soda bread, playing Irish music, Paddy jokes, wearing green, fond memories, and drinking. Let’s talk about it over Irish Coffee.
Real Irish coffee goes back to a dark and stormy night in 1943 when a plane left Foyne’s Flying Boat Terminal in Ireland headed for Newfoundland. Foyne’s FBT is a museum now with a website that tells the whole story. The short version is; after a few hours the pilot sent a Morse code message that they were turning around because of weather. When they arrived, the restaurant wanted something to warm up the passengers. Chef Joe Sheridan made them coffee with brown sugar, a jigger of whiskey and heavy cream floated on top. A woman, not sure what she was drinking, asked Sheridan if it was Brazilian coffee. He said, as a joke, ‘No, that’s Irish coffee.’
This drink is on Serious Eats’ ‘25 Cocktails Everyone Should Know.’ For years it had a bad rap because of bars that use bad ingredients starting with gross coffee and finishing with green Crème de Menthe over aerosol propelled, canned whipped cream. Here’s an excellent recipe, slightly adapted, from Felicity Cloake in the Guardian. What sets her recipe apart is basic, complimentary ingredients, a well-explained pouring ritual and muscavado (a large crystal, natural brown sugar without the molasses taken out). I didn’t find any of that in town but ‘Wholesome!’ brand dark brown sugar from the health food store is made by the same process and is equivalent.
1 cup good coffee-hot
2 or 3 tablespoons Irish whiskey
1 or 2 tablespoons brown sugar [recipe calls for 2 tablespoons to increase density so the cream will float, 1 rounded tablespoon works fine]
two tablespoons hot water
heavy cream—cold and beaten till it’s thick but not stiff
fresh ground nutmeg (optional)
A pottery mug holds heat better but a stem glass is the more dramatic presentation. Fill a mug or stem glass with hot water and let stand. In a sauce pan heat the sugar in 2 tablespoons water. Pour out the hot water from mug or glass. Pour in hot sugar water, add whiskey, add coffee to ½ inch below the rim, add cream by dropping spoonfuls over an inverted spoon, that way it doesn’t sink, until you’ve got a finger-width collar. The idea is to sip the coffee through the cream. Sprinkle with a touch of fresh ground nutmeg. My son, who was in Ireland last fall, thought it was hilarious that the Irish came up with a coffee that looks just like Guinness Stout.
Q:What do you call an Irishman by the swimming pool?
A: Paddy O’Furniture.
Q: How many Irish women does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Oh, you boys run along to the pub. I’ll just sit here in the dark.
Irish Soda Bread
We’ve got a great picture from our wedding reception of my wife’s Grandma Kennedy sitting with my Grammy Callahan. Two tiny, ferocious, cornered old Irish ladies looking daggers at the photographer. Smile, my foot. They’d had hard lives and they weren’t taking any crap him. Grandma Kennedy made a great Soda Bread. We always make it on St. Patrick’s Day and remember our grandmothers.
Grandma Kennedy’s Irish Soda Bread: Set oven to 350. Butter a bread pan.
2 cups buttermilk
3 tablespoons melted butter
2/3 cup white sugar
2 cups white flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons caraway seeds
½ cup currents
Mix wet stuff, mix dry stuff, then mix them together just until they’re combined. Don’t over mix. Turn into the bread pan. Check at 50 minutes. When you stick a toothpick in the center and it comes out clean it’s done. If you make muffins instead of bread check them at 20 minutes. Good hot, with butter.
*If there’s too much batter for your bread pan, the bread can get over-brown outside and still be gummy in the center. If that’s happening, you can hold out enough dough to make a few muffins and bake them after.
Irish insult: May the cat eat you and the devil eat the cat.
The Dubliners: (the band, not the book)
Whiskey in the Jar is a lively, centuries old, ballad about a highwayman betrayed by his ‘only sportin’ Jenny’ after he robs an English officer. The Dubliners made it famous back in the 1960’s. If you’ve never heard of The Dubliners, for over forty years they were the high bar in a country known for wit, song and drinking. All the Irish players from the Pogues to Sinead O’Connor to U2 were influenced by, and great friends of, these guys. When a journalist asked Bono, “Who was [front man of the Dubliners] Ronnie Drew?” Bono said, “Who was Ronnie Drew? If you lined them up, like, the hardest men in show business and the hardest men in rock and roll, just think of all the most obnoxious, swaggering rock singers, and it’s a girl’s choir next to Ronnie Drew.” He also said Ronnie Drew was the voice of the Irish nation. Other people said Ronnie Drew had a voice like coal being scraped across a concrete floor. Which was a very Irish sort of compliment. Unlike so many bands, The Dubliners were about having a good time with the audience. Never too serious about themselves, they were full of fun.
One day I got Whiskey in the Jar stuck in my head and went looking for all the covers of it on YouTube. It’s been a standard for Irish bands since the Dubliners made it a hit. First came the balladeers like the Irish Rovers, Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers, then there was Thin Lizzy’s rock adaptation, the Pogue’s punk version and many others. American folk singers like The Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, Jerry Garcia with David Grisman (really), and Elvis. Actually, it’s not the real Elvis. It’s an Irish Elvis impersonator named Jimmy Brown but he looks and sounds just like Elvis and he’s got nearly 400 thousand views with hundreds of comments from people who apparently think he is Elvis. For the worst cover, and this includes teenagers learning to play the penny whistle, no one comes close Metallica’s YouTube video Whiskey in the Jar. That one’s a lot like watching the Presidential primaries. You fill your glass and stare wondering, ‘How in the world could it have come to this?’ You can also hear the song introduced in Norwegian by the band Torfisk. Germany’s Santiano, French singer Nolweek LeRoy, Spain’s Krisenka Finley all do fine versions. ‘Bags of Rock’ a Scottish band blasts it out on the bagpipes.
If you’re surfing the net for Irish Music on St. Patrick’s Day here are 10 more great songs from the Dubliners; Dicey Reilly (filmed at Odonoghue’s Pub where they got their start), Rocky Road to Dublin, Seven Drunken Nights (which once made the UK’s top ten between the Rolling Stones and the Beatles), The Fields of Athenry (with Paddy Reilly), Mursheen Durkin, Wile Weile Waila (the cheeriest song you’ll ever hear about infanticide and hanging a woman—does any other culture come up with stuff like this?), Maids When You’re Young Never Wed An Old Man, All For Me Grog, Oro Se do Bheatha ‘Bhaile (curiously familiar song in Gaelic), and the Octopus Jig (in which the banjo man and fiddler play their own instruments with their right hands at the same time they’re playing the other’s instrument with their lefts while a third man plays the penny whistle with both hands as the fiddler blows it and he, the penny whistler, chugs an entire pint of beer held for him by the singer.)
Irish Gaelic toast
Slainte! pronounced Slawntcha (close enough). Means ‘Good Health’