Irish-American Dining: Onion and Dried Codfish

An omnibus. Apparently you would sometimes ride with moneys.

It’s always my desire to help the aspiring foodie. After all, if any trend is au courant, perhaps the au courantest is taking regional, ethnic, or peasant food and refashioning it with the techniques of fine dining. And we Irish-Americans are falling behind the rest of the world in this.

Our forebears from Erin have kept apace with the trends, and it is now possible to get exquisite renditions of rustic Irish foods. But wither thou, Hiberneo-Americans? Where are our foods?

Actually, now that I think about it, what are our foods? Irish-Americans have never stopped looking to the auld country for cues, and so whatever trend emerges in Ireland will break on these shores shortly afterward. So contemporary Irish-American pubs offer chips and curry, a trend that probably dates back no further than the 1970s in Ireland.

We do have corned beef and cabbage, yes, and that certainly is an Irish-American innovation, although less so than we might suspect. The Irish actually made corned beef, but primarily tinned it and sold it to the British navy and North American military. The amount of grazing land turned over to a consumer market abroad increased the native Irish dependence on the potato. The Irish are right when they say corned beef was not part of their diet; it was part of their starving.

It’s not clear how we Irish-Americans took to corned beef during the successive waves of Irish immigration. Some say it was because the food was readily available in pubs, which then offered free meals with alcohol. Some say we absorbed it from our Jewish neighbors. And some say Irish-Americans started eating it because it was a luxury item in Ireland but widely available here, the way our Jewish neighbors took to smearing cream cheese on a bagel, which would have been prohibitively indulgent in Europe but was suddenly cheaply available in the U.S.

Whatever the case, I don’t want to talk about corned beef just yet any more than I want to talk about green beer; I’ll get to both. Instead, just now, I will look at some of the foods available to Irish-Americans in the early years of our American experience, in the hopes of inspiring a foodie renaissance of specifically Irish-American meals.

So let’s go all the way back to 1859, and to Macon, GA, where the Macon Weekly Telegraph offered up a vivid description of the experience of riding an omnibus in New York City — an omnibus being a horse-drawn enclosed bus. “I was indelibly impressed with the beauties, comforts, and conveniences of city traveling,” our author states, and then immediately reveals that he’s being pissy. The remainder of the article is a prolonged snit about the experience of sharing public transportation with “passengers of all classes, clean or dirty, black or white, drunk or sober, monkeys, all kinds of vegetables, beef, mutton, and pork.”

He has the misfortune to share the bus with a “son of Erin” who is busily belching up his lunch, eaten at a “first-class Irish Saloon,” and here the author gives us a sense of what early Irish-Americans ate. Inventive chefs, take note! The lunch consisted of:

. . . three cent whiskey and a free lunch of onions and dried codfish.

I know this isn’t much to go on, but Iron Chef challenges often give their contestants less.

The onion is due for a comeback anyway. I’d go ahead and declare onion to be the new kale, but I think I’d seem dated, as kale hasn’t been the new kale for months. Onion is the new whatever has supplanted kale. Chia? Onion is the new chia. What could be better: Onions are low-calorie, low in fats and sodium, but are rich in flavors and nutrients.

For us to do this right, we have to look past our supermarket onion, which are often imported from abroad (China is the world’s largest exporter) and represents only a few varieties. No, firstly, let’s look to heirloom onions — I would experiment with a variety called New York Early, which was grown in New York in the 19th century and who knows, maybe was the onion that our gassy Irishman ate before climbing aboard the omnibus. It also is reported to have a relatively tender skin, which you’re going to want, because we’re going to bake and eat this onion.

How do we do that? Well, the simplest option is just to throw it in the oven and cook it for a while. In the south, they will take Vidalia onions, peel them, press some butter onto them, and cook them at 400 degrees for an hour. That could do it. But I’d like to suggest something else:

Old John McSorly, who founded the ancient bar that still bears his name in New York, used to hollow out a heel of french bread and stick a whole onion into it, and then he’d eat that. You could do that. McSorley’s still offers onions — you pile sliced raw onion onto American or cheddar cheese, dab some spectacularly spicy mustard onto it, and just eat it like that. I don’t have recommendations for how to take this decidedly working class cuisine and elevate it, but I’m sure someone can figure it out. Start with the heirloom onions and work your way out from there.

As to the dried codfish, well, you have two choices here: salted or unsalted, and the latter goes by the name stockfish. This is a classic of North Atlantic cuisine — so much so that the cod population has been depleted and other fish are often subbed in. There are Irish recipes for the stuff, but we want an Irish-American version here, so we can borrow liberally from anybody our 19th century Irish-American ancestors might have met — and, this being a New York recipe, they might have lifted versions from sailors in fromĀ  Norway, or Newfoundland, or Iceland, or even the Faroe Islands. Try them all and stick with whatever you like. It was Norwegian? It’s Irish-American now!

As to the whiskey — well, the combination of onion and salted cod is going to be, shall we say, flavorful, so you’re going to want a bold whiskey to go with it. I’m going to go out on a limb and recommend Connemara, which is a small-batch, peated whiskey, so it will have the sheer, brute strength to compete with the other flavors. It won’t cost you three cents, but, then, if you want to do it on the cheap, just chew on an onion, munch on some fish jerky, and wash it down with Kilbeggan. I won’t judge you. Heck, I’ll praise your authenticity, as the meal enjoyed by our son of Erin in the above story probably wasn’t the sort of thing that would earn any Michelin stars.

It’s not a meal that would make me want to be on an omnibus with you, but I’m not here to explore foods that will make you popular in enclosed spaces. I’m here to discuss Irish-American foods, and I’ll let omnibus riders fend for themselves.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.

One Comment

  1. Hmm.

    If you’re looking for an appetizer, I’d maybe do a sort of bread-with-spreads thing, coupling a few slices of soda bread with a brandiade of salt cod (for the cod) and then…maybe a sweet onion jam with balsamic vinegar or carmelized onions for the other spread.

    Actually, pair that with a really good cheddar and that is starting to sound awesome.

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