So, “An Irishman walks into a bar ….”
It’s the time of year for Irish jokes but I’m not going to tell any. The only Irish person I can claim in all of my known genealogy was my maternal grandmother and although she’s been dead for at least forty years, I think that I’m still a little bit afraid of her.
Grandma Meville (my grandfather was French, but that’s another story) was a disquieting visitor throughout my childhood. A short, plump, feisty woman with crayon blue eyes and a cloud of white, perfectly coiffed hair, I remember her as a sort of dynamo that would whirl into the house to look after me when my parents went on their occasional travels. Unlike my mother who favored capri pants and flats, grandma was always perfectly attired in a pastel colored frock and polished, elegant shoes with heels. Housework was done in this costume and if anything as dire as a speck or spot should appear on her apparel, it would require an instant, complete wardrobe change. A fragrance of lavender was a constant, although I do recall also a small sack of pungent peppermints that emerged occasionally from her leather handbag as carefully considered rewards for good behaviour.
My mother, who took after her father, was tall, slim, rather vague, and easily distractible. But there was no escaping the piercing blue eyes of grandma and I was almost certain that she could see around corners. On her arrival there would be an explosion of activity. The cat would be whisked from her perch on the kitchen radiator. The already clean kitchen floor would be stripped and scrubbed and polished to a mirror-like shine. Plants would be ruthlessly deadheaded. Leftover newspapers would be banished to the rubbish bin. It would be lights out at ten o’clock and up for school at 8 and I would no longer be able to read, in bed, until 3 a.m., or until I fell asleep. Shoes and fingernails (fingernails!!) would be checked for cleanliness before leaving for school. All clothing would be scrutinized for missing buttons, drooping hems or vagrant crumbs or lint.
It wasn’t all misery. Grandma was a tireless cook with a limited, but well-tried repertoire. She actually baked bread, for instance — and you can imagine the delight of coming home to that heavenly aroma. Another specialty was potatoes, fried in bacon fat, with chopped onions and loads of salt and pepper. The only “Irish” thing, I remember was something called “colcannon” which was a tasty mixture of cabbage and potatoes. And she made perfectly roasted chicken.
Grandma didn’t talk a lot, beyond giving instructions, and the few things I knew about her were from stories told by my mother. Her white hair had once been blonde, her skin porcelain and my smitten grandfather had called her his “little china doll.” Mother said that grandma was “convent bred” and that all of the daughters in the family had to put on their long nightgowns and then undress themselves underneath the garments before saying prayers and retiring. And grandma was strong. The family had lived on a farm where vegetables were grown and sold at markets. One year they had decided to get some chickens and the time had come to kill a hen for Sunday dinner. Grandma had told grandpa to do it twice; the third time, my mother recounted, he came to her with watery eyes and said, “I just can’t do it Barb, she keeps looking at me.” Grandma sighed, took the hatchet from his hands and marched off to the henhouse. My mother says she remembers grandma briskly bringing back the bloody hatchet and carefully cleaning it.
There was love between my grandmother and my mother — I realized that as I got older — but there was no resemblance. Anyway, on St. Patrick’s Day, I always lift a glass to Barbara Birk Meville, a woman who raised seven children in a farmhouse with no hot running water.
And, to heck with Irish jokes.
Here is my own recipe for Irish stew. It’s not at all traditional — it uses beef instead of lamb — but that’s because, like grandma, I don’t care for the taste of boiled mutton.
Irish Beef Stew
my adaptation of a recipe from Bon Appetit, March, 2001
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 1/4 pounds stew beef, cut into 1 inch pieces
6 large garlic cloves, minced
8 cups beef stock or canned beef broth
2 tbsp. tomato paste
1 tbsp. sugar
1 tbsp. dried thyme
1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
2 bay leaves
2 tbsp. (1/4 stick) butter
3 pounds russet potatoes, peeled, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 large onion, chopped
2 cups 1/2 inch pieces peeled carrots
2 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
1. Heat oil in heavy large pot over medium-high heat. Add beef and sauté until brown on all sides, about five minutes.
2. Add garlic and sauté about one minute.
3. Add beef stock, tomato paste, sugar, thyme, Worcestershire sauce and bay leaves. Stir to combine
4. Bring mixture to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
5. Meanwhile, melt butter in another large pot over medium heat. Add potatoes, onion and carrots. Sauté vegetables until golden about 20 minutes.
6. Add vegetables to beef stew. Simmer uncovered until vegetables and beef are very tender, about 40 minutes.
7. Discard bay leaves. Tilt pan and spoon off fat.
Can be prepared up to 2 days ahead. Cool slightly. Refrigerate uncovered until cold, then cover and refrigerate. Bring to simmer before serving. Sprinkle with parsley before serving.
This makes about 4 to 6 servings and can be frozen. It is wonderful when thawed and reheated.