Sure, there will be parades, funny hats, green decorations, and parties during the week of March 17th. But what really makes or breaks holidays and special occasions?
Let’s face it — it’s all about the food.
Halloween, Valentine’s Day and Easter are lucky enough to have chocolate as their traditional treat. Thanksgiving hit the luck jackpot with succulent roasted turkeys, mouth-watering dressings, tartly sweet cranberry sauce, and pies loaded with whipped cream. And who doesn’t love Christmas and Hanukah foods like cookies, doughnuts, prime rib, latkes, hot cocoa, brisket, and gingerbread? With the luck of the Irish on it’s side, you’d think that St. Patty’s Day would be associated with delectable culinary delights.
But corned beef and cabbage?
First of all, what is “corned” beef anyway? Does the corning process make an otherwise inedible piece of meat safe for human consumption? Is it one of those cuts of meat that grandfathers like to hang from rafters in basement corners, smelling like sweaty feet for 9 months at a time? Is the term “beef” just a genteelism for “pickled squirrel meat my Paw-Paw shot in the backyard”?
Corned beef is undeniably delicious in a grilled reuben sandwich, but when boiled with cabbage, it can become a smelly, stringy affair. I have enjoyed corned beef and cabbage on a few occasions; however, those were the times that, by sheer happenstance, the cooking time was precisely correct for that particular size cabbage, acidity, elevation, boiling point, and tilt of the Earth’s axis.
What average cooks don’t realize is that, within mere seconds, the otherwise crispy, sweet vegetable can become an overcooked ball of sulphur-gas-emitting mush that will stink up the house for at least a week. Corned beef and cabbage cannot just be tossed into a Crockpot. Cooking this finicky dish properly requires knowledge of chemistry, catlike senses, and a precision timing device. But who wants to stand around on St. Patrick’s Day watching cabbage steam for precisely six minutes and 39 seconds? There’s green beer to drink!
Speaking of which, green beer is festive and all, but let’s not kid ourselves. Order a green beer in any pub on St. Patrick’s Day and it’s likely to be the most tasteless brew on tap. Why? The rich gold, amber and brown tones of the better beers turn an unappetizing hue of olive drab when mixed with green food coloring. It’s the watery, faintly yellow beers that make the prettiest kelly-green tones, but beware that the appetizing color is masking a gut-rot swill that will stain your tongue and leave your head throbbing in the morning.
To make matters worse, my Irish mother-in-law, Alice Murphy, bakes a loaf of Irish Soda Bread every year around this time, and the whole family raves. But the dry, bland loaf has always confused me. It’s not sweet enough to eat like coffee cake or dessert, but it’s too sweet to use as a pusher for the corned beef and cabbage.
“It’s good with butter,” my mother-in-law would say. But doesn’t everything taste good with a thick slab of butter?
There is one saving grace of St. Patrick’s Day cuisine. That sweet frozen delight with a creamy hint of something reminiscently herbal like mint (or is it parsley?) that tingles the senses and cools the cabbage-scalded tongue. Whether eaten at 2:00 am with a Supersize Fry and Filet-o-fish after guzzling green beer, or sipped solitarily from the Drive-thru window on the way home from work, The Shamrock Shake mercifully delivers us from culinary evil.
When it all boils down to it, eating lousy food on St. Patrick’s Day isn’t so bad, as long as you’re lucky enough to share it with friends and family.