Irish Food Doesn't Suck

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Downtown Boston is full of Irish pubs—The Black Rose, Mr. Dooley’s, Barney Fanning’s. They set up sandwich boards on the sidewalk advertising corned beef specials and half-off shepherd’s pie. They play Irish music and pull pints of Guinness with shamrocks in the head. I’ve eaten in a few and you know the drill: gluey stew and sugar-crusted brown bread, maybe some cabbage thrown in for authenticity. It’s the kind of food that’s more about drinking.

You’d think I’d know better. I can trace family roots back to Ireland on both sides. But ours was not a foodie family and, if anything, my mother wanted to spare my brother and I the boiled dinners she recalled eating as a child, the seaweed her mother served limp in a bowl. There’s a reason Irish food isn’t known for being delicious after all—a lot of it is very much not.

We went all American, all the way: cheeseburgers and peas, pasta with Ragu, hot dogs and beans. On St. Patrick’s Day, my mother bought green bagels. Sometimes we’d stop in a bakery in South Boston after visiting my grandmother and buy a loaf of soda bread. It came domed with a crackly shellac of sugar. There were candied fruits throughout the pale yellow crumb. We devoured it but it’s not soda bread, not really. That over-the-top American sweetness is a powerful thing. We love to find a way to make something that is not cake a cake.

I’m not above it (who doesn’t like cake?) and I’m grateful for the memories I have of the ways we reached out towards the old sod growing up. But I wouldn’t call it a thing, our Irishness, as being of Irish descent and living in Boston isn’t all that special. It doesn’t make you other.

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When I started taking an interest in our family history, nobody really questioned it, as that’s something people do. When that digging transformed into a novel project, nobody really questioned that either. But when that novel started becoming more and more about Irish food? Then people wondered. Why Ireland? they asked. So-and-so never ate worse than when he went to Dublin. Had I tried corned beef? Like actually put it in my mouth? How could I build a novel out of a potato?

I needed to see for myself. In the summer of 2010, I went to Galway with a backpack, a notebook, and a tent I’d only use once. Like that tent, the trip as I imagined it was not the trip I ended up taking. I thought I’d be feeling the power of my ancestors rising up through the bogs, but here was my big take away: Irish food doesn’t suck. In fact, it has beguiled me ever since. It’s fresh. It’s nuanced. It’s good.

Berna had me at breakfast—Berna who picked me up when I couldn’t find the way to her B&B and eyed the backpack I slumped into her backseat, Berna who worried when I left for Connemara by myself. “You sure you’ll be all right now?” she asked, making sure I had her phone number just in case. Berna made a mean breakfast and it’s at her table that I discovered there are few places in the world where you can have better baked goods than in Ireland.

Her soda bread wasn’t cloying and cakelike; it was hearty and full of malted cereal notes—more a health food than an indulgence. I learned later that special, coarsely ground wholemeal flour is the secret. (King Arthur makes a spot-on version that I order in bulk.) She served scones, too, with runny raspberry jam and salted Irish butter yellow as an egg yolk. They sell bars of it at Trader Joe’s wrapped in gold paper. It feels very satisfying to put them in your cart and make stacks. Don’t blame me if you can’t go back to the old stuff after, pale and sad as an upper arm in winter.

Breakfasts were such an affair at Berna’s that I tried to get it to last me till dinner. There were some strikeouts, but those were mostly because I didn’t know better. When you’re in Galway and you know better, you go to Ard Bia at Nimmos. It’s located in a standalone stone cottage just past the Spanish Arch on Galway Bay. Red candles and table lamps with mismatched shades light the interior. The walls are lined with local art.

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They serve the kind of food that demands good ingredients: lamb with herb purée, Irish pheasant with carrot cream, hake with harissa and mussel broth. I ordered the fish special there one night at my tiny table for one (trout, I think, from the river). It came with sorrel roasted potatoes and lightly cooked green beans with plenty of bite left. For dessert: elderflower panna cotta with rhubarb compote. There was no cabbage to be seen, nothing boiled to be had. The manager at the time, Patrick, told me that it was hard at first cooking the way that they did in Western Ireland, where tastes are more traditional. There is an entrenched fear of rare meat, he said, which occasional outbreaks of mad cow exacerbated. But time and time again he came back to what makes Ireland special: the ingredients. Free range is standard. Produce is fresh and affordable. The sea is good to them. You must try the lamb, he kept saying. The lamb!

I didn’t have the heart to tell him I wasn’t much of a lamb person. The slight gaminess of the meat, the grayish chew of it, was enough to send me pork’s way. But in a pub on the bay near Clifden halfway through my trip, I ordered a chop in Patrick’s honor and wondered if I’d ever really had lamb after all. It was the most luscious, tender meat with what I can only describe as herbal notes. The farmers I met took grazing their flocks seriously. Some even boated them out to tiny islands in the bay, convinced that the salt air and briny grasses improved the taste of their meat. There are worse places to be a sheep.

Over the next couple of weeks I’d explore Connemara on my own. Before the trip I had visions of hitchhiking and camping in farmer’s fields night-by-night but when faced with the reality of it I just…didn’t want to. And so I set up my new tent (probably the second time I ever had) in the back garden of a monastery-turned-hostel in Letterfrack and stayed put. When I asked for a pillow they were kind enough to give me one. They had a fleet of creaky bikes they leant out first come, first served and I used those to get around.

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One day I set off for Roundstone, a village right on the sea with a scenic harbor, to check out their farmer’s market. A man sold oysters from a card table covered in seaweed. The dairy farms and their cheese samples went over big. Every so often there was the pop and hiss of a flare; Search and Rescue crews were practicing emergency ocean rescue procedures in the harbor for show. I watched a man survive a fake capsize over a lunch of pan-fried mackerel in one of the local pubs. Mackerel was new to me. I savored the delicate meat, fascinated by those dainty bones and the disco ball nature of their silvery scales. A fisherman had brought them in that morning. “The thing with mackerel,” the server told me, “is that you’ve got to cook them right away or they get fishy. But like this?” he said, gesturing towards my plate. “There’s nothing better.”

And there was nothing better. The thought crossed my mind many times on the trip. Sure, some of my hunger was the result of irresponsibly long and poorly planned bike rides; some of it might have been because, even though I like being alone and even though I wanted to be, there were times when I would have given anything for a familiar face. In those pubs and markets I was suddenly and briefly accompanied. There were no Griffins I could trace eager to connect, after all. The bogs hadn’t risen up to meet me; they were stark and squishy and more about the lack of things to me than the presence of anything. Irish food was my steady companion, so much more awake and varied, more flavorful and fresh, than I could have imagined. Those gluey stews of my home city felt very far away.

I returned to Galway before my flight and spent one of my last days walking the waterfront promenade in nearby Salthill. I stopped in to Lohan’s, a beloved local institution, for lunch. It was filled with families celebrating birthdays and anniversaries—it’s that kind of place. I slid onto a stool at the bar and ordered my cheap, go-to trifecta: vegetable soup, brown bread and a beer. The soup was creamy and smooth. I tasted squash and tomatoes, the sweet flavor of carrots that had been roasted first. The brown bread came with a pad of yellow butter. And as for the beer, I’d gone for something other than Guinness (although I can say for certain that it does taste better in Ireland): the Galway Hooker, named for a kind of sailboat and brewed locally. Craft beer has taken off in Ireland as it has here. Guinness is not the only game in town. I chatted a bit with the bartender but mostly watched the celebrations underway and took notes on scenes I might set there in the novel I hadn’t written yet.

I couldn’t know it then, but years later I would sit with my parents at that very restaurant at a table by the window. We’d look out across the ocean and say that somewhere out there was Boston. It was the next town over, as many liked to tell us when it came up where we were from. So what if we were really facing a sparsely populated inlet in Newfoundland that day, or a quiet snowscape in the Canadian territories? I liked the idea of here and there, that there was a way across that mattered. We left our bowls empty and stepped out into the sun. “That was delicious,” my mother said, and everything was.

Kristin Griffin’s short fiction can be found or is forthcoming in places like Joyland and Bodega magazines, and she freelances as a food writer. While Boston will always have her heart, she lives in Oregon now and teaches writing at Oregon State University. It’s taken some time, but the novel she started on that trip to Ireland is nearly finished. She plans to send it out to agents this summer.

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