tips, tastes and myth-busting: st. patrick's day revealed

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Saint Patrick's Day is widely celebrated around the world each year on March 17th.  Named after St. Patrick, the popular patron saint of Ireland and originally a Catholic holiday and official feast day in honor of St. Patrick's death, the day has come to be recognized as a secular celebration of Irish culture. Everyone is just a little Irish on St. Patrick's Day.

Saint Patrick Himself

Saint Patrick himself has quite a colorful history. He was born in Wales the 4th century and considered himself a pagan. At the age of 16 he was kidnapped by Irish marauders that raided his village and sold into slavery in Ireland. During his captivity he became closer to God and when he escaped after 6 years he went to a monastery where he came to believe his calling was to convert the pagans to Christianity.

A lot of legend surrounds St. Patrick, including that he raised people from the dead and gave a hilltop sermon that drove all of the snakes out of Ireland. While these literal events are not substantiated, they may be seen metaphorically for St. Patrick's conversion of pagans to Christianity.

 

Wearing O' The Green

One of the tales about St. Patrick that is a little more genuine is the story of how he used the three-leaf shamrock to explain the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. He explained how the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit exist as three separate elements of the same entity. St. Patrick's followers found favor in the explanation and adopted the custom of wearing a shamrock on his feast day. Green ribbons have often worn by girls on this day.

Interestingly, the actual wearing of green clothing is a U.S. custom Green is actually considered unlucky in Ireland. The color green is associated with the old green flag used at a time when Ireland was not free. Another new American tradition, started by school children, was the practice of pinching their classmates if they didn't wear green on St. Patrick's day. Some believe that this tradition stems from the idea that if you wear green it makes you invisible to the Leprechauns, who would pinch anyone they could see. Leprechauns, from Celtic folklore, are diminutive cranky fairies who mended the shoes of other fairies, and could use their magical powers for good or evil. They are also mischievous and delight in trickery, which they use to guard their fabled treasure - the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

 

Parades, Corned Beef & Cabbage, Green Beer and More!

As mentioned, St. Patrick's Day was originally a religious festival. The tradition of the St, Patrick's Day parade began in America, not Ireland. Originally consisting of Irish soldiers serving in the English army, the first parade took place in New York City on March 17, 1762. The parade helped the soldiers connect with their Irish roots and their fellow Irishmen. New York's is the largest and oldest St. Patrick's Day parade in the world, over 5 hours long with over 150,000 participants, that millions line up to watch. The longest running St. Patrick's Day parade in Canada takes place in Montreal, having first taken place in 1824. Since 1995, Ireland has seen the opportunity to make St. Patrick's Day a showcase of Ireland and Irish culture to the world, and in Dublin, the St. Patrick's Festival has become a weeklong event with a grand fireworks display, open-air music, street theater with over one million people in attendance. Some of the longest-runing parades in the U.S. are in New York, Philadelphia, Morristown, Boston, New Orleans, Savannah, New Haven, Milwaukee, Chicago, San Francisco and Cleveland.The tradition expanded and now there are celebrations in Dublin, London, Paris, Rome, Buenos Aires, Moscow, Beijing, Montserrat, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Africa, Brazil, Japan, New Zealand and elsewhere.

One unusual tradition developed in Chicago beginning in 1962. Here, Chicago pollution-control workers used green dye to trace illegal sewage discharges in the Chicago river. The workers thought it would be fun to celebrate St. Patrick's Day with a splash, and so released 100 pounds of green vegetable dye into the river, which would keep it bright green for a week. The idea took hold and continues today, even though only 40 pounds of dye are used to keep environmental effects to a minimum. Other cities now enjoy dying waters too, such as Indianapolis which dyes its canals and Savannah where the downtown city fountains run green. Even the White House in Washington, D.C. has celebrated by dying the north White House fountain green in honor of Saint Patrick's Day.

 

The custom of green dye has been extended to a favorite beverage enjoyed by Irish and non-Irish alike - beer. There are a few stories as to how this began. One version holds that the Irish were celebrating St. Patrick's day with so much fury that they depleted their stock of good Irish brew and had to resort to drinking "green beer" a term to brewers that means the beer is not yet ready to drink. Other stories hold that an American, thought to be a Bostonian, caught up in the wearin o' the green on St. Paddy's decided to green his beer with dye in honor of the patron saint. This idea took off with the press and other celebrants so much that it became "the thing to do" to with your beer that day.

 

The custom of eating corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's Day is one more custom that needs to be illuminated. This "traditional" meal enjoyed by many on St. Patrick's Day is, in truth, only half Irish. Cabbage is a well-known staple of the Irish diet, but it was traditionally served with Irish bacon or smoked or salted pork - pork being much more readily available and cheaper than beef. Tragically much of the beef was exported as salted beef to Britain and Canada by Irish tenant farmers raising beef on behalf of the landlords who owned the land on which they lived, and couldn't possibly afford what little beef came on the market. The name "corned" beef came from the grain or "corn" sized chunks of salt used on the preserving process. When many Irish came to America and Canada during the Great Famine and after were introduced to the taste of beef, they often treated it the same way as a "bacon joint" at home in Ireland, soaking the salt beef to draw off the excess salt, then braising or boiling it with cabbage and served in its own juices with a little spicing of a bay leaf and some pepper. This dish was considered too common to use for a holiday celebratory meal, and so the tradition of serving corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's Day is more likely one that will be seen in North America. The tradition of good Irish beer, Guinness and otherwise, is something that can be appreciated by celebrants everywhere.

Finally, the last tradition to be explained here would be the invention of Soda Bread, often dubbed Irish Soda Bread, despite the fact that it wasn't invented by the Irish. The earliest reference to using soda or pearl ash as a leavening agent in baking bread seems to be credited to American Indians using it to leaven their bread. In Ireland, limited supplies of yeast made an alternative desirable. The use of baking soda as a leavening agent was quick and effective, and baking soda was readily available. Original soda breads were simple, with only flour, buttermilk, baking soda and salt. The buttermilk was a byproduct of the butter making process and provided the lactic acid needed to react with the baking soda to  make the bread "rise." Today's "Irish Soda Breads" are often supplemented by additional ingredients like sugar butter, currants or raisins.  There are a few different theories as to the significance of the cross on the bread. Some believe it was placed there to ward off evil or to let the fairies out of the bread. More than likely, the cross probably helped allow air circulation that helped the bread rise.

 

To help you celebrate the luck of the Irish on this Saint Patrick's Day, we thought we'd share this recipe we found a while back in the Chicago Tribune. We love a good crusty loaf of bread and this recipe was identified as being favored by the actress, who lived in Ireland when she was young. Have a hand at it if you like and celebrate with some of the other wonderful traditions - new or old - or, well, just share it with family and friends any time of the year.

 

Anjelica Huston's rustic Irish soda bread

Prep: 10 minutes
Cook: 55 minutes

Makes: 1 large round loaf, 20 servings

Whole milk imay be substituted for the buttermilk, but if you make that switch, you will also need to substitute baking powder for the baking soda.

3 cups whole wheat flour

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon brown sugar

2 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 to 1 1/4 cups buttermilk

2 tablespoons shortening or butter, melted

1/3 cup rolled oats

Heat oven to 450 degrees F. Sift the dry ingredients, except for the oats, together into a large bowl. Combine 1 cup of the buttermilk and the shortening in a bowl; stir into dry ingredients, mixing slowly to make a thick dough. Add more of the buttermilk, if needed. Then add the oats and mix until just combined.

Knead the dough briefly on a floured surface; form into a round shape. Transfer to a greased baking sheet. Make a cross on the top with the non-cutting edge of a knife. Bake for 10 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees F and bake until brown and firm, about 45 minutes.