Irish-American Dining: Irish Egg Rolls

Milwaukee Irish Fest: With this you get egg roll.

Milwaukee Irish Fest: With this you get egg roll.

I can’t think of anything more American than combining foods with radically different points of origin, and Biddy McGraw’s pub in Portland offers a superlative example: Irish egg rolls. They’re not alone in this, either: Galway Bay Irish Pub an Annapolis offers Killarney Cabbage Wraps, O’Faolain’s in Virginia has Irish sausage rolls, the Old Brogue in Virginia has Gaelic Bite Spring Rolls, and Brigid’s Cross Irish Pub and Restaurant offers Irish egg rolls. I’m sure others do as well, although the recipe seems to be a relatively new innovation: Wisconsin lore has it that they were introduced at the Milwaukee Irish Fest in 2002 by a German restaurant called Mader’s, and I can’t find an example that dates back further.

So, first, let us talk about the egg roll, and, secondly, figure out what makes it Irish, or, more properly, Irish-American.
So, first, let us talk about the egg roll, and, secondly, figure out what makes it Irish, or, more properly, Irish-American. Egg rolls are something typically found in Chinese restaurants in America, and are, in fact, an example of something called American Chinese Cuisine. Now, there are egg rolls in China, but they aren’t very like the American version, which is a crispy flour dough wrap stuffed with some sort of meat (pork, shrimp, and chicken are common) and some sorts of vegetables (carrots, carrots, and bean sprouts are common). The egg roll is then deep fried, which, let’s be honest, is what Americans would do with every food if they could figure out how.

I won’t detail the entire history of the egg roll, but would instead point interested readers to the book “Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States” by Andrew Coe, who makes the case the the American egg roll was invented in New York in the 1930s, perhaps by a chef named Henry Low. The chef claims to have invented it on Mott Street, making it a distinctly American innovation, although he stuffed his egg roll with a lot of ingredients that we don’t use anymore, including bamboo shoots, roast pork, shrimp, scallions, and water chestnuts.

It’s this flexibility that allows the egg roll to be such an ideal fusion item: You can wrap just about anything in the crispy flour dough wrap and it’s still an egg roll, in the same way that (alas) anything served in a martini glass is now called a martini.

Egg rolls made the jump to bar menus pretty quickly, probably starting with Chinese restaurants that had attached bars, but by the 1950s Trader Vics offered Tabasco egg rolls on their menu, which was considerably different than the appetizers found in Chinese venues, including mushrooms and, obviously, Tabasco sauce.

Shortly afterward, it was a Chinese-American who created the idea of what would later be known as “fusion cuisine”: Richard Wing of the Imperial Dynasty restaurant in Hanford, California, who borrowed from classical French cuisine, but “with a Chinese accent,” as he put it. An article by his niece suggests that one of Wing’s innovations may have been an egg roll made with corned beef and cabbage, and that brings us to our second subject of discussion: What makes it Irish-American?

There have been a lot of recipes that sought to answer this — corned beef and cabbage being the most obvious. Galway Bay starts with this, but includes mashed potatoes, as does Old Brogue. O’Faolain’s Irish Pub deep fries an entire sausage in a Guinness tempura batter and then puts it in the egg roll wrap. Additionally, an egg roll made with the traditional ingredients of a Reuben sandwich — corned beef, sauerkraut, and cheese — is often called an Irish egg roll, and you’ll find this on the menu of quite a few Irish pubs, and was the original Irish egg roll offered at the Milwaukee Irish Fest.

So the answer is simple: You put whatever seems appropriately Irish into the wrap. This strikes me as an opportunity for a lot more innovation, as I can imagine a shepherd’s pie egg roll being delicious, or a Dublin Coddle egg roll made with sausage, bacon, onion, and potato.

I have to say I especially like the fact that this appetizer reflects something rarely addressed in discussions of the Irish-American experience, which is that it is generally also a fusion experience. There are very few Irish-Americans whose family has been here for more than a few generations who can trace all of their ancestors back to Ireland. Instead, we tend to be a mix of different heritages, and our Irish identity can be informed and influenced by this. We tend to think of Irish people as red-faced people, sometimes with red hair, sometimes with olive skin, sometimes with dark hair, but usually white. This isn’t always the case with Irish-Americans, and this image excludes people like dancer Carrie Ann Inaba, has Chinese and Irish ancestry, and actor David Henney, who claims Korean and Irish heritage, and even comedian Tommy Chong, whose father was Chinese and mother was French and Scots-Irish.

Bearing this in mind, while egg rolls may not be Irish, because it is a food created in America by a Chinese cook, and a German restaurant decided to add the ingredients of a sandwich invented by a Russian Jewish man for an Irish festival — well, the Irish egg roll seems like one of the most perfectly Irish-American foods ever invented.

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Max Sparber

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