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Why do we Irish love potatoes?

Like the call of the siren, it beckons from the center of the Thanksgiving table in all of its starchy goodness, just on the other side of the green beans. There’s no shame. Everyone with Irish ancestry succumbs to its lure. We’re all powerless in its awesome gaze.

Of course, I speak of the spud, the incredible, edible, delectable master of all tubers, the potato, the perfect vehicle for gravy, the granddaddy of side dishes.

The potato has played a crucial role in our history, sustaining our ancestors and spreading us tragically across the world when nature denied us its bounty. My father used to say that a day without potatoes is like a day without sunshine. Indeed, I’ve been served dinners in Ireland with three different kinds of potato sides. And I loved it.

How seriously do we take our potatoes, any of you non-Irish may ask? Let’s just say that three years ago, in November 2018, a Cork woman was sentenced to jail for damaging a packet of Pringles. Don’t mess with our crisps!

But how did we get here?

Potatoes evolved from the poisonous ancestor of nightshade, so its cousins include tobacco, chili peppers, bell peppers and tomatoes. Just so you know, the part we eat is the root of the plant, where the energy is stored for the following year.

Yet, I digress. Our story starts about 15,000 years ago in the South American Andean highlands between what is now Peru and Bolivia. That’s when human settlers appeared in the region. Somewhere about 8,000 B.C., we domesticated the wild potato. (My personal belief is that the first fish and chip shop opened not long after, but archaeology is murky on this subject.)

The potato remained unknown to the rest of the world until the Spanish conquistadors started poking around the area in the early 1500s. Somewhere between 1570 and 1593, they brought the plant to Europe, but it was hardly an immediate success. Europeans were used to eating the upper portions of plants, not the roots, and as such, the plant was regarded as poisonous and even evil. Doubters blamed the potato for leprosy, sterility, over sexuality and for destroying soil.

But the lowly potato found its salvation in its long shelf life, in particular for the French military. France sought a food not only to sustain their soldiers, but also a populace starved from continuous warfare. The government planted one hundred acres of potatoes and guarded the food. The fact that it was guarded sparked interest among the French and eventually it became one of the most popular food sources in Europe.

The Great Hunger

The potato was introduced into Ireland in the late 1500s and apparently we liked it. Not only did it flourish, but the tuber grew so well in Ireland that eventually farmers began to rely solely on the plant for their crops. Big mistake. It became the staple for the poor Irish family.

So, when a blight hit the potato crop in 1845, the working poor were unprepared. That year, a fungus-like organism called Phytophthora infestans turned up to one half of the potato crop into goo. It devastated about three-quarters of the crop over the next seven years.

Britain—which at the time ruled Ireland—failed the population. Though Ireland continued to export a great many food sources, their populace was dying. Roughly a million Irish people died of starvation or related causes and another million left the shores of their homeland for Amerikay and other less impoverished nations. We spread throughout the world.

In 1997, British Prime Minister Tony Blair issued a statement, offering a formal apology to Ireland for the British government’s handling of the catastrophe.

And so here we are, with Irish seeds cast all over the world. We stuck by our beloved potato and have—in the inimitable Irish way—bettered ourselves through our misfortunes.

But there’s more!

Allow me now to move past the traditional roasted, mashed, baked, boiled, fried, chipped, crisped potato to offer you a new avenue for potatoes: pizza crust. Yes, it’s possible and yes, it’s delicious (and gluten free).

I’d suggest listening to appropriate music while making this recipe. Suggestions include Bud the Spud and the Ketchup Song, both from Stompin’ Tom Connors; Potato’s in the Paddy Wagon, by the New Main Street Singers (from the movie A Mighty Wind); and Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off, performed by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.

Potato Pizza Crust

1 ½ pounds potatoes (try red potatoes)

½ cup of shredded cheese of your choice

1 egg

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Salt and pepper

Your choice of toppings

Preheat oven to 425 F (220 C)

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper

Peel potatoes, discard peels

Grate potatoes in grater (large holes)

Transfer potatoes to towel and squeeze out excess moisture

Add potatoes to a bowl with cheese, egg, salt and pepper. Stir to combine.

Form a 12-inch circle on the parchment paper with the mixture

Bake 25-30 minutes

Remove from oven and top with toppings of your choice (suggestions: mozzarella cheese, cherry tomatoes sliced in half, pepperoni and basil)

Bake an additional 10-15 minutes. Crack open the latest edition of iIrish and enjoy.

Writer's Digest Award

Well, don't that beat all. I have won an honorable mention in Writer's Digest for an article I wrote for iIrish about Newgrange.

Not much to add to that, but I'm pretty happy about it.

I didn't order a milk

People ask me all the time, “Is sleeping on the sidewalk outside a busy train station as wonderful as it sounds?” The short answer is no and I normally tell interrogators this with a hearty laugh and a pat on the arm. But there’s a more thorough answer:

I turned twenty in 1988, and celebrated with a trip across Europe, a good friend named Jim accompanying me in the endeavor. It was a month-long excursion, an experience I felt sure I would repeat many times. (Advice to younger folks: take the trip whilst you can. Life has a way of crushing all of your hopes, plans and dreams.)

We hadn’t planned it much. We knew the areas we wanted to hit, and some of the sights we wanted to see, but we wanted freedom, so things were left loose.

Okay, may I just say one thing? Who am I asking? Of course, I can. Going back over the memories, the old instamatic cameras were absolute crap. My photos from the trip are dark and lifeless, fuzzy and indistinct. So, all you young people out there, appreciate what you have on your smartphone. Hold a tissue in front of the lens the next time you snap a photo. That’s how these things used to look.

Anyhoo, we started our journey in London, where we hit some of the favorites like Abbey Road and the Changing of the Gordon’s Dry Gin spokesmen. Near the end of that bit of skylarking, I found a cheap flight to Ireland (yes, we actually read a slip of paper in a window and booked it that way. Crazy, right?)

All of my cards on the table, Jim didn’t want to visit Ireland. He figured we were heading in the wrong direction and was anxious to streel the mainland. I would not acquiesce. And so we went.

I don’t need to tell you, dear reader, that he fell in love with the country.

At one point, in the small townland of Derrynoose, which contains more Makems per square foot than any place on earth, we decided to walk into town, which consisted of a church and a post office/shop. Along the way, a single tractor lumbered past, with a pipe-smoking farmer at the helm.

“Hello boys,” the man said as he took to the passing lane.

We waved back and Jim consequently asked who the man was. “I dunno,” I replied.

“No, come on,” says Jim, “who is he?”

“I don’t know.”

“Come on, quit kidding around, who was that guy?”

“I told you, Jim, I’ve never seen the man.”

“So, you’re telling me that guy just said ‘hi’ for no reason.”

“That’s what I’m saying, Jim. We’re in a village that could probably fit on a bus and we’re the only three people likely to pass each other.”

And that was that. Jim loved Ireland. His first hope was to move there and set up a pizza delivery business, which I informed him wouldn’t work in Ireland. (Don’t send me mad emails, this was 1988 and what you got at the time was meat, veg and two forms of potato.) Then he decided just to move over and get a job. I shot that one down too, it still being 1988 and him not being Irish and all that and the country being pretty adamant about bestowing any available jobs to the Irish, many of whom were quite looking for one.

So, after a swell time on the ould sod, we caught a ferry to France, saw Paris and what it had to offer, and then booked an eight-hour train ride to Amsterdam. Now, we had Eurail passes, providing fairly good travel across the continent, but we had heard that the trip from Paris to Amsterdam was standing room only and if we didn’t want to be perpendicular for eight hours, we were well off throwing down a few shekels for a booked seat. We happily complied.

Here was the first real flaw in the otherwise perfect Persian rug that was our vacation. For although our seats were occupied when we arrived at them, there was a cheeky young man in Jim’s seat and a weary, old dozing biddy in mine. Jim’s seat was easy enough to clear. He showed the man his ticket and that was that. But what was I to do, kick a frail and sleeping granny out into the aisle?

So, for eight hours, Jim sat happy as a clam as I meandered through the throngs, leaning on seats and generally yawning at an alarming rate.

(Amsterdam is not for a family publication.)

(Nor is Germany.)

Italy was fun. I should mention that in an alley in Rome, we ran into the kid from the train—who was sitting in Jim’s seat—and who we also joined for some festivities in Amsterdam.

Then we returned to France, Nice to be exact. We left our belongings in a locker at the train station, passports, wallets and all. Then we headed out to explore the city.

I had heard that McDonald’s sold beer in France, so we being two twenty-year olds…well, you know. Having had nine years of French at Catholic schools, I approached the cashier and said, “Donnez-moi un bier, s’il-vous-plaît.”

She uttered something that left a blank look on my face. Recognizing how terrible my accent was, she responded in clear English. “Is that for here or to go?”

“Ah yes, very good. To go, then.”

“Beer needs to stay on the premises.”

“Right-e-o, I’ll have it for here.”

“Is that all?”

“Oui,” said I.

“You can’t order just beer. You need to order food with it.”

“I see. Well, okay, I’ll have a beer and a small fry.”

I paid her and she left, returning with a small fry and a carton of milk. So that turned into a whole thing, which ended up with me sulking over a plastic cup of beer and a small fry in a McDonald’s in Nice, France, while Jim complained that it cost money for the packets of ketchup.

(Yes, this McDonald’s episode actually happened.)

When we returned to the train station for our belongings so that we could secure some bedding for the night, we—along with several other young men—were surprised to see that the train station was closed at 6 p.m. and that everything was locked up.

We tried our hand at sleeping on the beach, but to be honest it was comprised of rocks and not comfortable in any way, shape or form. Plus, we were wearing our summer gear, which was shorts and tee-shirts and it was pretty darned cold. And on top of it all, there was a noisy brawl on the boardwalk above us, which put us at unease, so we returned to the station and slept on the sidewalk outside waiting for doors to reopen.

I will say this once and for all. Sleeping on the sidewalk outside a busy train station is not enjoyable, even in Nice, France. Give it a try, if you must, but be prepared for disappointment.

My father's last trip to Ireland

“I’m afraid this is expired.” This was July 2007 and the Aer Lingus agent was holding my father’s American passport.

The old man was not in the greatest of shape for this trip. He’d mistakenly grabbed the wrong passport. My father, Tommy Makem, had been battling lung cancer all year and we were heading over so he could be awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Ulster. I started to panic.

This was weeks before he passed away and I think he knew it would be his last time in the country of his birth. The thought was certainly front and center in my mind. I don’t recall too many times when he sounded as disheartened. “I guess I’m not going to Ireland,” he said.

“What about your Irish passport, do you have that?” I asked. He handed it to me and I gave it to the agent. “Will this do?”

“That will get him into the country, but I don’t know how he’s getting back here,” the man in the snazzy green vest retorted.

“We’ll worry about that later,” I replied. I called my older brother, Shane, and told him to look for the most recent passport.

Anyway, the pair of us found seats beyond security and I envisioned a week at the American Embassy in Dublin trying to work out a fix instead of being with the paterfamilias. It was hardly the way I had hoped to spend the week. The crisis was averted when Shane returned my call saying he had located the passport and that he would overnight it to our hotel.

We stayed at our go-to digs in the north, the Armagh City Hotel. He had a steady stream of well-wishers and though he was tired, he jumped at every chance to head out for a visit with cousins or friends.

I recall one dinner we had at the hotel, where I had schemed myself a way to pay. My father, you see, was one of those people who always grabbed the bill before anyone else could, and I wanted to treat him for a change. I excused myself for a bathroom break and slipped the waiter a few pound notes on the way. When I arrived back at the table, the man was returning the money saying he couldn’t accept it. In a hurry to beat my father to his wallet, I threw more money at the waiter. He regarded it and said he couldn’t take that either and my father handed him a credit card.

It turns out, Northern Bank had been robbed of £26.5 million in December of 2004 and in a blow to the robbers, all of the ten, twenty, fifty and one-hundred-pound notes were updated and reprinted. The old notes were unusable. Since I hadn’t been up north in a couple years, the cash I had left over from my last trip had to be converted at the bank. My father’s stint of footing the bill remained unbroken.

We traveled to the University of Ulster for the big day so the old man could accept his Doctorate of Letters. I should mention that he only attended school until eighth grade and that he had received doctorates from both the University of New Hampshire and the University of Limerick prior to this. To say I have pride for my father’s accomplishments is quite the understatement.

I was informed that I would be taking part in the ceremony when we arrived and I immediately demurred. But they told me it was in the program, and that I had no choice. Hours before the graduation ceremony, a man brought me out from the backstage area onto the stage to show me where I’d be sitting, the chair up front on the far left. A sheet of paper with my name was taped to it and I told the man I understood. Then he spent a good five minutes reiterating that that was my chair and it was where I’d be sitting. I restated that I truly did understand.

As the witching hour approached, I was given a cap and gown, which I reluctantly accepted. Then they lined us up and told me I was leading the procession into the auditorium. “The what now? I’m not leading this thing in.”

“You are,” I was told. “It’s in the booklet.”

The horns started blaring in the big room and the doors whooshed open and there I was leading a line of professors and dignitaries into a hall filled with thousands of spectators. After a few feet, the professor behind me whispered, “Walk slower.” She was very kind and I obeyed. Then she said, “Slower.” And I once again paid heed.

Then it hit me. I glanced at the stage at the bottom of the gangway, straight ahead. I had no idea where the stairs were to climb onto it. They had only shown me my spot from an onstage access. What was I supposed to do, turn around and ask directions while the music is playing and everyone is standing up and watching the first man in line?

I inched forward, the sweat beading up on my brow. This line was going to come to a stop when I reached the bottom of the auditorium.

Then the professor behind me saved the day. “Turn right at the man with the scepter.” It’s a quote that sticks in my head to this day, one that I never could have predicted I would hear in my lifetime.

When I reached the man, I indeed turned right and there were the stairs, at the end of the stage. Thank the stars. I led the group onstage and there was my seat, just as it had been left. It never dawned on them to run me through my duties at least once.

My father received a standing ovation when they awarded him his degree. I didn’t think most of the students would have been old enough to appreciate what he had contributed to Irish music. But I’ve become an old curmudgeon myself and I sometimes love it when I’m wrong.

Tommy Makem passed away fourteen years ago, on Aug. 1, 2007.

These are a few of my favorite things

It would be no surprise to Ohio Irish American News readers that I’m a considerable enthusiast of the Irish food revolution taking place over the past decade or more. The gastro pubs and farm to table offerings have exploded, and as far as I’m concerned, are world-class nowadays. Ireland has been in a perfect position to experience the melding of the old with the new.

There are times, however, when all one wants is a bit of nostalgia, the return for a short while to less complicated days when calories, cholesterol, climate change, animal welfare, food allergies, nutrient intake and the like weren’t constantly in the back of the mind. Such is the state of affairs running around my gray matter this morning as I amble around the streets of Galway on Google Earth, recollecting the spiritually fulfilling nosh we used to not even appreciate.

Especially during these Covid years when travel is only starting to enter the conversation again, I thought I’d run down some of the Irish food experiences I miss the most while sitting on this side of the Atlantic.

And I’ll start with carvery lunches, which is what originally sparked this column. In particular, I digitally zipped past the Skeffington Arms Hotel and started salivating at the thought of fresh carved turkey breast, mashed spuds, rolls and a few ladles of gravy. Picture, if you will, sliding your tray along the rails, studying each of the steaming comestibles behind the glass separator. The chef, with blade in fist, asks which of the meats you’d prefer. You study the roast and the turkey, but there’s no correct answer. They both look juicy and delectable. “A bit of both,” you say. “A wise choice,” he replies.

I’m sorry, where were we? Food, yes.

If you’ve ever stopped into a shop of any kind in Ireland, you’ll no doubt agree with me that their selection of chocolate bars and crisps is second to none. From Tayto Cheese and Onion and Buffalo Hunky Dorys to Lion Bars and Cadbury Flakes, the difficulty is selecting just one and not filling up several plastic bags with the top twenty. Inevitably, we all have our favorites, but there always seems to be something you’ve never tried before, and exploration is half the fun, isn’t it?

Next up on our culinary tour is the staple of all staples, the full Irish breakfast. I’ll admit to you, one of these bad boys is enough to satiate my desire for a week or so, but when the calling comes back, it’s a strong one. Given a choice, I’ll skip the mushrooms, and fill up on sausage, hash browns, beans, black pudding, fried tomatoes, fried eggs and toast. These all slightly edge out potato farls, white pudding and Irish bacon (I know, send in the hate mail). It’s the one meal I promise myself to snarf down whenever I head back over.

Since I only ingest the occasional full Irish, I skip the urge to fill up at the airport on the way into the country. Sure, it will have all of the ingredients, but for me the full Irish isn’t meant to be eaten in an ultra-bright, fast-paced, plastic-chaired operation. It should be savored in an establishment with at least a modicum of charm or character, especially if you’re only having the one. Do yourself a favor and find a real restaurant or pub.

And speaking of pubs, I couldn’t skip one of my favorite ways to spend an evening, sipping a pint with a simple packet of bacon fries with plenty of old wood, stimulating conversation and a stunning lack of lighting. I suppose the food and drink takes a back seat to the atmosphere with this one. I recall a night I spent sharing a few with an old gentleman in Sligo in a pub with no televisions and no stereo. Just a handful of folks, a choice of snugs and quiet conversation. It’s a shame that these types of places are becoming relics. It might be ne’er impossible to find a pub without something to distract patrons nowadays.

Next on my ravenous list are tea sandwiches. We’re talking two pieces of white bread filled with only a slice of ham and butter, or a slice of cheese and butter, or cucumbers or egg salad or the like, cut into quarters and eaten in three bites. There’s something so deceptively delicious about such a simple concoction. They can be combined with the next contender, a bowl of veg soup for a perfect lunch. Take either of them separately and they’re just what the doctor ordered for a quick pick-me-up.

And if you’d like to complete the trifecta, just pull up a seat in front of a peat fire, a ham sandwich, a bowl of veg soup, a small Coca Cola and a few red embers to blow you some heat.

Not to be missed for snacks are chips (that’s fries to some folks), cut thick with malt vinegar. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a ketchup lover, but chips and vinegar sometimes hit the spot. Manys a night I’ve sat contented on a barstool with nothing to focus on but a plate of chips. And I miss it.

Last up is the classic pot of tea. I drink more tea than you can shake a stick at, but it never reaches Nirvana like back home—steeped in a metal pot with sugar cubes on the side, real milk and small tea mugs.

With all of that said, all is not lost if you can’t make the trek over to the ould sod. In fact, perusing the OIAN, you’ll be able to locate Irish restaurants, pubs and import shops with a lot of the grub in this column obtainable through them. You’ll be satisfying your belly while supporting the Irish-American community. And every small business could use a little help right now.

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Writer's Digest Award

Well, don't that beat all. I have won an honorable mention in Writer's Digest for an article I wrote for iIrish about Newgrange.

Not much to add to that, but I'm pretty happy about it.

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