On March 17, millions of Americans will eat corned beef and cabbage and drink themselves into a stupor, believing that they are commemorating St. Patrick. In fact, there’s a wide gap between the authentic Irish celebration and the way the day has been transformed by real and would-be Irish Americans.
While St. Patrick is Ireland’s patron saint, most historians believe he was actually English. According to legend, he was kidnapped by pirates and lived in Ireland for six years before he escaped; he later returned as a missionary and is credited for bringing Christianity to the country. St. Patrick’s Day is a national holiday in both Ireland and Northern Ireland and was traditionally a solemn feast day.
That era is over, for the most part. The holiday was hijacked by Americans, in an eerie replay of the saint’s kidnapping, and transformed into a day of blind excess. The culinary aspects are amusing. Corned beef and cabbage is just as Irish as veal parmesan is Italian, although bacon and cabbage is a national dish, and both slow-cooked stews and roasts are typical of feast days. If your exposure to Irish cuisine is confined to March 17, you’d be shocked during a visit to Ireland: on the upper levels, that country’s cooking is as refined as anything found in France. The best chefs are obsessive about tracing the source of their ingredients, and most have personal relationships with their purveyors.
Green beer? Forget about it, as they say in Brooklyn. Warm or room-temperature Guinness is the order of the day in Irish pubs (given the original religious significance of the holiday, those pubs weren’t even allowed to open until the 1960s). Irish whisky has been going through a renaissance in recent years, with its image redefined by brands such as Teeling, Redbreast, Tyrconnell, Connemara and Knappogue Castle. Even the high-volume brands are getting a makeover with expressions such as Bushmills 21-Year-Old Single Malt ($255) and Jameson 18-Year-Old Limited Reserve ($160).
None of this will stop partygoers from spending the day at an Irish pub, provided they can find one (the pub is a vanishing institution, both here and in Ireland, as the sons and daughters of publicans show little enthusiasm for spending their days pulling pints of Guinness). Those who find a suitable celebration will be unwittingly illustrating the concept of the granfalloon, invented by Kurt Vonnegut in his novel Cat’s Cradle. A granfalloon is a group of people who mistakenly believe themselves to be related (or, as Vonnegut put it, “a proud and meaningless collection of human beings”). Examples are associations of university alumni, employees of corporations, citizens of any nation—and, of course, honorary Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture, as well as three novels. His first novel, Friend of the Devil, has been re-released on Amazon in print, e-book and audio book formats. Has America’s greatest chef cut a deal with Satan for fame and fortune?