Irish-American Dining: Murphy Bisque

Is this an Irish-American soup? No. No it is not.

Is this an Irish-American soup? No. No it is not.

There was a brief explosion of culinary inventiveness in the first and second decade of the 20th century regarding Irish-American dining. Usually it occurred around St. Patrick’s Day, which, even then, was treated as holiday that anyone might take part in. Plans were made for the sorts of parties they had then, which were obsessed with the theme of the night, and so everything would be decorated in an Irish way, with shamrocks and Irish lace and the like, and guests would come with Irish songs ready, and there were party games of vaguely Hibernian themes.

Her evening menu included Murphy bisque, along with “Irish fried spuds,” “Blarney Cream,” and “Coffee Bawn.”
There wasn’t a great deal of sophistication here, especially where the food was concerned. Usually, it involved simply clumping together green-colored vegetables, or dying existing foods green. I might reproduce a few of these recipes in this collection, but, for the most part, they don’t sound very good.

An example: In 1902, in a city called Merton, as reported by the “Evening Star” in Washington DC, there was an Irish dinner for St. Paddy’s Day thrown by the wife of the owner of a linen factory. Her evening menu included Murphy bisque, along with “Irish fried spuds,” “Blarney Cream,” and “Coffee Bawn” — the bisque was cream of potato soup, Irish fried spuds were french fries, and the cream and coffee were just what they sound like. And so the inventiveness at the Merton party was limited to fabricating new names for old recipes.

A raft of similar recipes, but with a hint more creativity, was published in 1904, in “Keith’s Magazine on Home Building, Volume 11.” Keith offers a simple menu for St. Patrick’s Day, including “Me Father’s Hat,” which is a paper cup in the shape of an Irish hat filled (with a pipe stuck through it!) filled with pistachio ice cream, and “banshees,” which bare just green candies or lozenges. He also suggests “Murphy bisque,” a cream potato soup.

We find a more elaborate menu of both events and foods in in “Dame Curtsey’s book of novel entertainments for every day in the year” from 1907. She offers a rather comprehensive collection of suggestions of St. Paddy’s activities for children and adults, starting with draping the room in apple-green cheesecloth hung with Irish flags and perhaps strewn with green flowers. Women should wear green ribbons and men green rosettes. She recommends having a pedestal with a reproduction of the Blarney Stone on it, and all the men must kiss it; after that, “honeyed words and the boldest of flattery will be permissible.” Guests must then sing an Irish song or tell an Irish tale.

Dame Curtsey recommended writing out the evening’s menu on a card in the shape of a potato, and her collection included oyster paddies, emeralds, shamrock salads, shillelaghs, and murphy bisque. She spent little time actually giving recipes, but dispensed with each with a sentence: Paddys are patties filled with oysters, emeralds are small French peas, the salad was a mint aspic in a shamrock mold, the shillelaghs were just long rolls of cream puff batter.

The bisque? A cream potato soup. We have not yet stumbled upon an actual recipe for the stuff yet, but never you mind — newspapers would soon step into the breach. The Boston Herald in 1911, along with recipes for “St. Patrick’s Cream” (a green whipped cream) and “Hibernians” (sponge cake with pistachio fondant), offered a proper recipe for Murphy bisque:

Boil and pare six large potatoes, mash; heat three pints of milk, add salt and pepper, two tablespoons of butter, one tablespoon of scraped onion, one tablespoon of flour, then add the potatoes. Cook until creamy. Place whipped cream on each cupful. Serve with hot wafers.

This is credited to someone named “NORA,” but, digging further, Nora had stolen the credit. This exact recipe, with the same wording, can be found in the imposingly named “The Delineator, Volume 61, Issue 3,” from all the way back in 1903, as is the recipe for Hibernians.

This exact recipe gets kicked around for a few more decades, although it gets a slight updating in 1956, in the State Times Advocate in Baton Rouge:

Murphy bisque: (not to be confused with Mrs. Murphy’s chowder): use frozen cream-of-potato soup; on top, float a few well-washed three-leaf clovers.
Of course, all we have is cream of potato soup by another name, and, in the last recipe, further regarded by using frozen soup. No, this won’t do. Everything about this recipe should be revisited, starting with the broth. They are ojn the right track with a milk base, but I’d go one step further and add in buttermilk. The Irish make a mashed potato meal called champ, and one of its defining flavors is buttermilk, so experiment with this. They also tend to add in onions and sometimes celery, so this might be worth experimenting with. I have made a very good potato and leek soup using traditional Irish recipes, and you could easily make this into a cream of potato soup by adding in cream.

I do like the idea of adding clover. It’s an edible green, after all, although not one that is often used in cooking, and there may be some room for experimentation here. Some warning though: It seems that some people are allergic to clover and don’t know it, because who eats clover? So this is an ingredient that should be used with care.

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Max Sparber

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