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Posts Tagged ‘Irish culture’

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Homemade Pan Boxty – Photo by Grey Catsidhe

It’s been awhile since I tried anything new from Irish Traditional Cooking by Darina Allen.  I made boxty pancakes before, but I decided to try making pan boxty today.  Unlike the former, pan boxty only utilizes fresh grated potatoes.  I didn’t have any mashed potatoes sitting around.

According to Allen, this dish came about in response to famine and poverty.  By grating and then squeezing the moisture out of the potatoes, our Irish ancestors were able to use potentially rotten spuds that wouldn’t work in other dishes.  Pan boxty is dense, crispy, and filling.

The traditional recipe she shared called for six “medium” potatoes.  I think the recipe was for one boxty that could be quartered…  but I was able to make three!  It didn’t specify what size of cast iron pot one should use, so you have some wiggle room when it comes to portions!  (Heck, in a recipe that calls for a “handful” of flour, you can play around…)

Despite its simplicity, boxty is not a quick meal.  You have to grate the potatoes, squeeze the moisture out, and wait for the starch and water to separate.  Each boxty cake takes about thirty minutes to cook, so if you make more than one with a small pan… be prepared to wait around a lot.

If you have the time and energy, making boxty is worth the effort!  They are very delicious, especially with some ketchup (is my mutt American upbringing showing?). The effort they take will keep us from overindulging in these thick, buttery, crispy, potato treats, but I see myself making them whenever I have more potatoes than I know what to do with!

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I received Irish Traditional Cooking by Darina Allen for Winter Solstice this year.  It had been on my wish list for awhile, so I was really excited to get it.  I’m enjoying it immensely!  While there are, of course, many meat-based dishes, there are a surprising number of vegetarian recipes too!  Some non-vegetarian dishes are easy to change – it’s just a matter of swapping broth.  If I get really creative, I’m sure I could experiment with using homemade seitan too…

One reason I added this to my wish list is because reviews praised its inclusion of history and culture in addition to recipes.  So far, I’m not disappointed. Guest food historians add context to the recipes, and excerpts from a variety of food manuscripts provide further insight.  There are recipes representing various generations and social classes.  There are comforting, affordable farm recipes, foods that require French techniques expected by the rich Anglo-Irish landowners, and (much to my delight), recipes inspired by trade with India.  What is considered traditional changes with each generation, after all.  I’m also enjoying the bits of Irish language included.  As I read this book, I’m not just browsing recipes – I’m exploring an important part of my ancestral culture.  From just my grandfather’s research, I had poor farmer ancestors from Munster Co., and Anglo-Irish ancestors from Ulster Co.  I really want to explore as much as I can.

I won’t try all of the recipes due to my dietary choices, and certain selections will depend on my ability to procure ingredients that aren’t common to American markets.  As I scanned ahead, I noticed a chapter on wild ingredients, which is really exciting but could be challenging.  I’ve never cooked with seaweed outside of attempts at Japanese cuisine, for example.  We shall see!  I hope my readers don’t begrudge my desire to blog about my experiences.  Out of respect for the cook book’s author, I will not share the recipes – just my reflections.  If you’re as interested in Irish food and culture as I am, I hope you’ll consider purchasing it for yourself!

As it’s winter, starting with some soups seem appropriate!  Off to write my grocery list and think about brothchán – broth!

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2014 Maypole – Photo by Tara Loughborough, 2014

Northern Rivers celebrated its second Bealtaine together on May 10th.  The skies, which had been full of rain clouds, became pleasant and even sunny.  Perfect Maypole weather!  What a blessing!

I’ve never found evidence that the ancient Celts celebrated the holiday with a Maypole, but it’s become such an important part of the modern celebration.  My first exposure to the living Pagan community was on a Bealtaine.  My would-be friends and teachers danced a Maypole. My first visit to Muin Mound Grove was on Bealtaine.  Again, my would-be friends and teachers danced the Maypole.  It has become a sort of personal “Pagan birthday” since I lack the memory of any other concrete day in my early years of exploration.  Dancing the Maypole awakens my inner sense of whimsy and fun.  My husband and I annually kiss each other as we dance, inspired by the flirtatious nature of the custom.  This year, my ribbon broke shortly after I started, but I still laughed and circled with the others as one of our very talented members played his bagpipes.  At the end, I tied my ribbon around the bottom with the others.  Our dance sends our wishes of fertility into the land.  It is prayer in motion.

More traditional among the Irish was jumping the Bealtaine bonfire for luck and healing.  This was our magical working during the ritual.  I also prepared a candle in a lantern for those uncomfortable jumping the actual bonfire.   As we chanted, most of the women and children jumped the candle (I held Bee while we went together).  Most of the men and one lady jumped the actual fire pit which was spectacular to watch!

Songs were sun, praise was spoken, and offerings were poured, sprinkled, and hung around the fire and the clootie tree near the stone circle.  It was our first ritual outdoors since the hard winter hit Northern NY.  My goodness, it felt wonderful to be out there at the circle again…  Welcome May!

Clootie Tree – Photo by Grey Catsidhe, 2014

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I recently read a piece from NPR called “Shanghai Warms Up to a New Cuisine: Chinese Food, American Style” by Frank Langfitt.  It really caught my attention.

“What does Chinese food have to do with Druidism?” I hear you ask.

It has everything to do with identity and authenticity – two things that modern people on the Druidic path are constantly thinking about, talking about, and confronting.

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Some lovely mashed potatoes I had at Watertown’s own Irish pub, Coleman’s Corner.

I’ve known for some time that Chinese food served in America is different from what is served in China.  I’ve never experienced any traditional Chinese cooking, so my only knowledge of this comes from friends of mine who have actually studied and traveled in China.  In the article, American expats living in Shanghai have found themselves missing American style Chinese food despite having a plethora of traditional restaurants around them.  One of the people interviewed has actually opened a restaurant that serves Chinese American food complete with all the trappings that are never seen in “authentic” Chinese restaurants – fortune cookies and white takeout boxes.  Some may cringe at this strange import/export, but one of the owners is of Chinese heritage – yet he grew up in America.  And I learned something that seems rather obvious now but I had never given it much thought: “Chinese immigrants created it over time, adapting recipes with U.S. ingredients to appeal to American palates.”

Fastforward to the present and recall every time you or someone you know critiqued an “ethnic” restaurant in America because it wasn’t “authentic.”  Now, just to be clear – I completely understand the appeal of traditional food.  America has a tendency to turn everything good into some weird, super sized, overly sweet/salty version of itself with high fructose corn syrup and artificial dye for good measure.  But let’s be fair – that isn’t always the case.    Many “ethnic” restaurants in America are  local “ma and pa” places that have been passed down through generations that originate through, yes, immigrants!  Immigrants who had to fight and often, for better or worse, give up parts of themselves to assimilate in America.

My Irish ancestors were part of that process.

March is coming.  In many ways, March is like the American Chinese food of months for Irish diaspora like myself.  Irish pride month is full of things we recognize as somehow Irish – traditional music, step dancing, Jameson whiskey, and soda bread.  Yet it’s also full of things that make people who know a lot about their Irish heritage and its culture cringe – garish green “Mardi Gras” style accessories, green beer, poorly translated Gaelic t-shirts, and “Irish nachos” (whatever those are).

Yet!

Yet I try very hard not to let those things detract from my ability to enjoy celebrating my heritage.  I know I’ve grown up in America and my nationality is American, but I am also of the Irish diaspora.  You cannot take my heritage away from me.  I’m not perfect and there’s so much more I want to learn about and engage in with regards to Ireland.  I want to learn more Irish, practice more traditional music on my viola and bodhrán, read more history and mythology, fight to preserve the land in America and Ireland … And I do so with the greatest amount of respect and an open mind.  I wasn’t always this way.  I’ve grown up from a relatively ignorant child who thought Ireland was all about green beer and old castles with stones to kiss, to an equally ignorant new Pagan who felt St. Patrick’s Day was the worst thing ever, to the modern Druid I am who embraces Irish pride month and thirsts to know more about her heritage – ancient and modern.  I will forever be on that journey, and I know others are on similar tracks.  When it comes to Druidism, it’s far more productive to live my path and offer guidance when asked rather than turning my nose up at everyone who wears their plastic Mardi Gras St. Patrick’s Day beads or insists that “Bring Back the Snakes Day” is a good idea.

If my country were an Irish American pub menu, yes there are a lot of Irish nachos and loaded Irish potatoes and whatever other very “American” breeds of Irish diaspora, but there are plenty of people like myself.  And although I get annoyed with the so-called “plastic paddies,” we all start somewhere and even most people who value the traditional also enjoy the comforts of their childhood (like my fondness for Americanized soda bread from time to time).  Although it’s not something I see often, occasionally a Pagan from Europe will look down his or her nose at the diaspora, as if we are somehow less than deserving to embrace our heritage – usually as a result of people who have lost touch with most of their ancestry, have yet to delve into a deeper exploration of their past, and instead fill that part of them with what modern America tells them is Irish.   American, Canadian, Australian, English, South African,  and all nationalities of Irish diaspora should not be deterred from embracing their heritage and honoring their ancestors who left Ireland for whatever reason.  They did what they felt was right, and unfortunately that often meant giving up some of their traditional ways to fit in.  The fact that we have any Americanized “ethnic” food is because immigrants from all over the world came here and engaged in the overwhelming give and take that happens in very diverse places.  There was sacrifice.  For better or worse, it happened and the food they produced, the culture they produced, is still authentic – just not necessarily traditional!  We are authentic Irish Americans – which can mean a great many things, including embracing some of the traditional ways of the Old World… or making Irish nachos.

So when you worry about whether or not the dishes in American Chinese restaurants and American Irish pubs are “authentic,” realize that they are!  They are authentic Americanized versions of recipes that our immigrant ancestors brought over and experimented with over generations just to fit in.  Whether or not you think assimilating was right of them or society, dwelling on it for very long is fruitless.  Rather, honor the ancestors’ by toasting their efforts to do the best they could, reflect on how you can celebrate and encourage diversity today, and perhaps explore the traditional recipes your ancestors used to know.  Perhaps, one day, more traditional dishes will rejoin the Americanized in the restaurants to provide a culinary history lesson.

(For more on how foods from around the world changed due to immigration, check out this neat article from NPR entitled “Fat Tuesday: The Many Different Doughnuts of Mardi Gras” by Emily Hilliard.)

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Labels and baby steps.

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I honor and work with the Three Kindreds: the Nature Spirits, Gods and Goddesses, and the Ancestors.  The later tends to fall to the sidelines all too often in my daily practice, which is very unfortunate.  I pride myself and my tradition for paying better  attention to the beloved dead, but I know I have room for improvement.  And since most cultures who venerate ancestors share the belief that they are more likely to help you than the other spirits due to their vested interest in the tribe, it makes sense to keep that hospitality flowing!

A fellow ADFer really inspired me by posting about having coffee with her ancestors.  I’m not much for coffee, but I could surely share tea!  The only problem was that my ancestor altar had become a tiny corner on my bookshelf which is relegated to a hard to reach corner in our new place.  Boo!

It suddenly occurred to me that I had space over the hutch my father refurbished for me!  What’s more, it is in the dining room where I can enjoy a cup of tea with my ancestors!  And not only that, they can join us for every meal!  (Talk about super convenient for Samhain!)

My ancestral altar, all moved in to the dining room. Photo by Grey Catsidhe, 2014.

After I moved the altar to its new home, I felt called to make some Irish soda bread.  I never made traditional soda bread before, so I searched for a manageable recipe.  I wasn’t sure if I would like it without raisins or caraway seeds, but it came out wonderfully!  And of course, the first piece went to the ancestors.  Today, as Bee and I enjoyed our breakfast, I shared some tea with my ancestors, invited the beloved dead, and delved into some Celtic studies.  It occurred to me the ancestors were talking to me through the history book…  How appropriate.

My first attempt at baking traditional Irish soda bread! Photo by Grey Catsidhe, 2014.

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I recently watched “Ghosts of Murdered Kings” on PBS.  If you follow the link, you’ll be able to stream it on their website.  This documentary focuses on the research surrounding the various bog bodies that have been uncovered throughout much of Northern Europe.  I was able to see some bog bodies in person, first one at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and then in the National Archaeology Museum of Ireland (which I blogged a bit about here).  The later has several on display.  I felt a bit odd typing the previous sentence because there is something deeply humbling and even troubling to me about displaying dead bodies, especially if they were meant to be in the bogs…  But on the other hand, they have taught us so much about the Celts and their beliefs.  They also communicated something almost ineffable about mortality that stayed with me after seeing them.

“Ghosts of Murdered Kings” is another wonderful addition to the NOVA library.  It explores the most recent theories surrounding these bodies.  The prevailing theory seems to be that the bog bodies were usually royalty sacrificed to the land following poor harvests which relates back to the old ritual marriages between rulers and sovereignty Goddesses.  Even having been exposed to this theory before in history books and the National Museum of Ireland, the refresher was welcomed.  I learned several new things about how these theories came to be which gave me a greater appreciation for the scientists who work so diligently.

I recommend this documentary but caution that children might be frightened by it as it shows real corpses and features some minor dramatized violence and discussions of “triple murder” and “overkill.”  It will definitely make you reflect on the practices of our Celtic ancestors and their relationship with the natural world.  Whether such a sacrifice was or still is necessary is not the point – rather, why aren’t we taking our relationship with the land as seriously?  Each of us is married to the land whether we like it or not.  If we fail to respect her while also meeting our needs, what we will we have to give up to change the situation?  What habits should we commit to the bogs to better ourselves and society?

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