Irish-American Dining: Leprechaun Cookies

Cookies decorated by Sugarbelle. I want to eat these right now.

Cookies decorated by Sugarbelle. I want to eat these right now.

Sometimes I worry that we Americans are putting the Irish off leprechauns. We’ve taken the little creature and run with him, and the results, including sports mascots and preposterous St. Paddy’s Day costumes, are a little embarrassing to the Irish, I hear. I can imagine a real-life leprechaun sneaking into some Irish farm house to do some late-night cobbling and being met with an Irish farmer, broom in hand, crying out “Away with you, to America, like all your kin!”

He’d live a welcome, if degraded, life here, as Americans affix leprechauns to just about anything they want to seem Irish. Let’s take a leprechaun cookie, as an example. I see no evidence it is made out of leprechaun at all, although, to be fair, the first time the treat is mentioned, on Thursday, March 16, 1922, in the Caledonian-Record, there is no recipe. The story merely mentions that Mrs. W.R. Prouty entertained her Fortnightly club with green-colored food in anticipation of St. Patrick’s Day. Among the foods she served were leprechaun cookies, and, although it goes unmentioned, perhaps Mrs. Prouty did trap a leprechaun or two and put them in her food.

We don’t get a recipe until 1960, when the Lexington Herald offered the following:

To make 2 1/2 dozen cookies, cream 1/2 cup softened butter or margarine and 1 cup sugar until light and fluffy. Sift 2 cups sifted all-purpose flour , 1 teaspoon baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt together. Combine 1/4 cup chopped maraschino cherries, well drained (about 10 cherries), 1 slightly beaten egg and 2 tablespoons milk; mix well. Add dry ingredients and cherry mixture alternately to cream mixture. Mix well after each addition. Chill 1 hour. Roll out on lightly floured surface to 1/8 inch thickness. Cut into rounds with floured 2 1/2-inch cookie cutter. Place on greased baking sheets. Arrange cherry halves on cookies to resemble shamrocks. Bake in moderate 375 F. over or until cookies are lightly browned.

The recipe isn’t explicit, but I expect the cherries should be green colored and not red, or one will end up with a cookie that looks made from a pulped leprechaun.

Some sort of leprechaun cookie made it into school lunch menus: Around St. Patrick’s Day in 1976 and 1977, the Rockford, Illinois Lexington Herald published the school meals for the day, and the cookie was there, along with St. Patrick’s Salad and cold meat. They made it to Michigan schools in 2004 and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, in 2011. The last newspaper mention I find of the cookie is this past year: The Press of Atlantic City wrote about St. Patrick’s Day partying, and mentioned that Bally’s Boardwalk Cupcake were offering leprechaun cookies and Guinness Stout Intoxication Cupcakes. In most of these cases, it’s anyone’s guess about what is being called a leprechaun cookie, but I found an image from Bally’s and it is a gingerbread cookie in what looks to be green icing lederhosen.

Yah, Irish lederhosen.

Yah, Irish lederhosen.

As this little fellow suggests, there are great things that can be done with frosting, and I must say I genuinely marvel at the cookies decorated by blogger Sugarbelle, pictured at the top of the page. You supposedly can make these at home, and the creator is kind enough to offer step-by-stem instructions, but were I to attempt it I know the results would be better sent to the Nailed It blog than given out as food.

 

 

Irish-American Dining: Irish Bisque and Irish Trifle

"I grew up on the Irish trifle and the children like it too." -- Mrs. Martin O'Sullivan, Boston Record American, 1971

“I grew up on the Irish trifle and the children like it too.” — Mrs. Martin O’Sullivan, Boston Record American, 1971

If we are to discuss the American recipes called Irish bisque and Irish trifle, we need to clear up a few things first. And, first of all, it is very confusing that the food is called “bisque.”

Bisque is, of course, a French food, a spicy broth of lobster, crab, shrimp or crayfish. Since the creatures used for the meal are typically too imperfect to be made another way, bisque traditionally including the ground up shells of the poor crustaceans, uncleaned, and previously simmered in wine, which sounds less like a food than a nonsensical stanza from one of the mock turtle’s poems in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

There is a recipe for Irish bisque that started making the rounds as far back as 1916; I first find it in the Macon Telegraph, but it was widely republished. It was a St. Patrick’s Day recipe, and true to Irish-American cooking of the era, it had nothing to do with Ireland, nor anything to do with the food it was named for; it is, in fact, a dessert! It was, however, green-colored, and that was enough. The recipe is as follows:

IRISH BISQUE — Bring one quart of new milk to a boil, dissolving in it one pint of granulated sugar. When this mixture is cool, add a quart of whipped cream, a teaspoon of vanilla and freeze until it is the consistency of mush. Remove the dasher, add wine glass of sherry, and a coffee cup full of macaroons ground very fine. Color to the right shade of green with vegetable coloring matter, pack and set away to harden. This is an excellent substitution for pistachio, the green ice cream offered by caterers.

I can’t say it sounds entirely appealing, but they had me at “add wine glass of sherry.”

In fact, the presence of the alcohol suggests this is a variation of an actual popular dessert in Ireland, the trifle, which is a thick custard with fruits or nuts and whipped cream.

The Irish trifle made it to America at least as far back as 1931, when the San Francisco Chronicle published a version of it credited to Umberto Dean, the chef at Cafe Marquard. His recipe was simple and seemed constructed out of leftover desserts:

Line a dish with strips of stale sponge cake or lady fingers; put in a layer of rich custard, then a few spoonfuls of raspberry jam, pieces of stale fruit cake or nuts, if preferred, then another layer of custard with a second layer of jam, cake or nuts. Put a heavy layer of whipped cream on top and garnish with cherries. Macaroons may be used instead of fruit cake. Serve very cold. Flabor with sherry or brandy as desired.

Duncan Hines himself offered a recipe for trifle in 1953, crediting it to an Irish-American friend who recalled the trifle of her ancestors. It must be said, the version Duncan Hines come sup with does not sound authentically Irish, but typically American, consisting largely of dumping packets of premade desserts on top of each other. His version:

For six servings you will need a jelly roll, some raspberry jam, a cup of sliced almonds, a wine glass of sherry, 1/2 cup of thin custard and 1/2 cup of whipped cream.

Choose a deep bowl that will be pretty enough to serve from and put in a layer of sliced jelly roll. Spread with jam and sprinkle with sliced almonds. Repeat until about an inch from the top of the bowl. Pour a wine glass of sherry over the cake and let it stand until it has soaked into the cake.

Make a thin custard — you can use 1/2 package of vanilla pudding mixture — and pour over the cake. (Thin custard, beat 1 whole egg in the top of a double boiler, blend in 1 tablespoon sugar, a pinch of salt, milk. Cook over simmering, not boiling water, stirring constantly. When custard coats the spoon, remove from heat.) Refrigerate overnight. Just before serving, top with 1/2 cup unsweetened whipped cream and decorate with sliced Maraschino cherries and angelica.

Angelica is an herb of the carrot family whose roots and fruits furnish the oil used as flavoring for liqueurs and as a perfume and whose leaf-stalks may be candied. It is the candied stalk that is used for this dish.

There were variations: Patricia Murphy published a recipe in in 1964 that included instant coffee powder and used green Maraschino cherries. The Boston Record American had a variation in 1971 that involved dumping in a canned fruit cocktail. The Oregonian added a banana, that most Irish of foods, in 1979.

And, foodie though I am, I am loathe to offer any recommendations that will detract from the essential American-ness of these recipes, the act of taking packages of sweet stuff and dumping it atop sherry-soaked old dessert cakes, although obviously the recipe would be improved by hand-making the various ingredients. Martha Rose Shulman, writing for the New York Times, suggested handmade crème anglaise instead of custard and berry compote rather than jam, and Julianne Glatz in the Illinois Times suggested using Irish whiskey and not sherry on the cake. Both seem like fine suggestions to me.

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.

Irish-American Dining: Stuffed Irish Toast

Bigfork, Montana, where the Irish stuff their french bread.

Bigfork, Montana, where the Irish stuff their french bread.

This is something off a one-off, as stuffed Irish toast seems primarily associated with one venue, a now-closed bed and breakfast in Montana called the O’Duachain Country Inn. The place was founded in 1985 and decorated with leprechauns by a couple named Tom and Margot Doohan, and Margot was the originator of the stuffed Irish toast.

This is the recipe, first published in “Montana Bed and Breakfast Guide and Cookbook”:

Take one loaf of French bread.

Make a filling of the following: 8 oz. cream cheese, 1 tsp vanilla, 3/4 cup sliced almonds, 1/4 cup powdered sugar.

Make a batter of the following: 3 whole eggs, 1 pint whipping cream

Make a topping of the following: 2 jars apricot preserves, blackberries, fresh grated nutmeg

Start by toasting the almonds over medium heat. Warm cream cheese in microwave until soft. Add almonds, vanilla, powdered sugar; mix. Cut bread into 1-inch slices, slice partway through to make pocket. Spread 21 tbs cream cheese mixture in pocket. Dip slices in batter and fry over griddle until brown. Drizzle preserves, blackberries, nutmeg. Serves four.

There isn’t even much of an American tradition of stuffed toast, although in Aberdeen, SD, they apparently used to stuff chicken into loafs of bread.
Now, I’ll admit this doesn’t sound very Irish, although it sounds like exactly the sort of thing you might expect in a Montana B&B. There isn’t even much of an American tradition of stuffed toast, although in Aberdeen, SD, they apparently used to stuff chicken into loafs of bread, at least according to the Aberdeen Daily News from 1958. I’d like to say that Aberdeen isn’t all that far from Bigfork, where the O’Duachain Country Inn was located, and so maybe the chicken stuffed toast is an ancestor of the Irish stuffed toast. And maybe it is, but even though they are in neighboring states Aberdeen is actually 945 miles from Bigfork. To put this into perspective, that’s about the distance from Dublin, Ireland, to Venice, Italy, and the food of Ireland has very little to do with the food of Italy.

But, then, America is a vast place with a compressed sense of culture, and so you find substantially the same food popping up in New Jersey and Seattle at about the same time. Speaking of New Jersey, according to the Trenton Evening Times their locals were stuffing seafood into toast in 1984, and this doesn’t sound especially Irish either, but the author of the recipe was named Joan O’Sullivan, and, from what I can tell, she was a syndicated food writer, so as Trenton went, so went America.

And, looking closer at the Margot Doohan recipe, even though she’s using French bread, between the batter and the powdered sugar, it’s essentially French toast she’s serving. There is a bit of a tradition of this: I find at least several dozen recipes for stuffed French toast in America’s newspapers. The Dallas Morning News stuffed them with figs on Christmas, 1948, while the Richmond Times Dispatch reported on a Polynesian-themed restaurant that was stuffing them with bananas in 1982.

Further, once I start looking for “Irish French toast,” I start getting a lot of culinary inventiveness. Yankee Magazine, as an example, published a recipe by Aimee Seavey in January, 2012, which used cinnamon raisin bread and added Irish cream to the batter. Cakewalkr.com offered a version in 2013 that used soda bread, a suggestion elaborated upon by  Fáilte Irish Pub and Steak House this year in Happenings Magazine — they made their with soda bread and then topped it with whipped cream made from Irish cream.

I don’t want to get to far from Mrs. Doohan’s original conception, though, which involved stuffing the toast. But I’d like to suggest, as our recent cooks did, that we start with soda bread and not French bread.

I think Doohan was smart to stuff it with cream cheese, and I actually think the idea of blending these things with Irish cream to be a bit naff. When I look over recipes for spreads in Ireland, they tend to be a bit rustic and more savory than sweet, including horseradish and herbs. We tend to think of French bread as a sweet food, but there are recipes for savory versions, which use Parmesan, mustard powder, salt and pepper, basil, and other unexpected flavors.

I’d try something like this. Use an herbed cream cheese — perhaps sage, thyme, and oregano. Consider adding a earthier cheese to the batter, and perhaps black pepper and garlic.

Heck, if you’re feeling especially daring, toss something else into the bread. We’ve already seen that you can stuff it with chicken or seafood. This is supposed to be Irish stuffed toast. Stuff it with mutton or cod.

How will it taste? I don’t know. I’m just making this up as I go along, as I suspect Mrs. Doohan did.

Irish-American Dining: Irish Mist Desserts

Mrs. Kickham, creator of an Irish Mist torte.

Mrs. Kickham, creator of an Irish Mist torte.

Irish Mist managed at once to be very old and not especially old. The brown whiskey liqueur with that name dates back to 1947, when the Tullamore Dew distillery was founded, but it was reportedly inspired by a possibly mythical older drink called heather wine that was favored by ancient chieftains. It’s not certain the liqueur was actually inspired by an ancient recipe — liqueurs are notoriously prone to creative storytelling on that account, such as Bénédictine, which claims to have been invented by monks but was actually invented by a businessman and a chemist. Nonetheless, Irish Mist has a pleasantly honeyed, herbal flavor, so if it wasn’t drunk by chieftains, it feels like it should have been.

The liqueur was mostly made for export, and so, very quickly, Americans started concocting desserts with the stuff. I suppose, in the American imagination, Brian Boru might have drunk a long quaff of heather wine, wiped his mouth, and declared that might it not make a lovely torte?

A reader had written to Poppy looking for St. Patrick’s Day recipes, lamenting “all those old cliches … the cakes with the green icing … the shamrocks made out of gumdrops.”
In fairness, the originator of this trend seems to have been Frances Kelly, the Irish painter and wife to Frederick Boland, the Irish ambassador to the U.N. In a 1958 story to a New York wire service, she complained, as Irish people do, about the fact that the American Patrick Day didn’t seem very Irish at all. She recommended making roast beef and not corned beef and cabbage, and then suggested making “strawberry mousse tullamore.” Her recipe involved simmering one pint syrup and then allowing it to cool. To this she added one pint fresh strawberry pulp flavored with one-half glass Irish Mist and two pints fresh whipped cream. This is all whipped together, chilled, and served in a glass.

There’s a wonderful ersatz authenticity to this, but I’m going to go ahead and say that I do not believe Frances Kelly ever made this dessert at home in Ireland. I suspect the recipe was concocted to take advantage of Kelly’s visibility in New York as a tool to sell Irish mist to Americans — especially as her recipe for roast beef included an Irish Mist cocktail. I am, therefore, going to declare the an Irish-American recipe, the first of many.

A society author with the marvelous name Poppy Cannon provides us with our next dessert, published in the Baton Rouge Advocate on March 16, 1964: Compote of green gage plums with Irish Mist. A reader had written to Poppy looking for St. Patrick’s Day recipes, lamenting “all those old cliches … the cakes with the green icing … the shamrocks made out of gumdrops.” Poppy, who also called herself The Fast Gourmet, offered the following suggestion:

COMPOTE OF GREEN GAGE PLUMS … Chill and drain canned green gage plums. Anoint with Irish Mist, a cordial made from Irish whiskey and heather honey.

There’s not a lot to Poppy’s recipe, but its is elegant in its simplicity. Louisiana remained ever an inventive leader in Irish Mist desserts, as the New Orleans Times-Picayune greeted St. Patrick’s Day, 1964, with a recipe called Irish Mist delight, as follows:

2 qts vanilla ice cream 1/2 of 12 oz. jar, green mint jelly 1 or 2 jiggers Irish Mist liqueur

Place scoops of ice cream in large bowl. Dab with mint jelly and sprinkle with Irish Mist liqueur. Yield: Eight fill servings.

The same year, the Augusta Chronicle introduced the Shannon Spirited Souffle, which was, at long last, an Irish Mist recipe that required a little more work than just dumping the liqueur on something sweet, although it is so particular in the brands it insists that you use that it reads as an advertisement for Borden. Here it is:

2 envelopes unflavored gelatin
1 tablespoon Borden Instant Coffee, dry form
1-1/2 cups water 1 tablespoon
RealLemon Reconstituted Lemon Juice (owned by Borden, incidentally)
1/2 cup Borden Instant Nonfat Dry Milk, dry form
1-1/3 cups (15-oz. can) Borden Eagle Brand Sweetened Condensed Milk
1/4 to 1/2 cup Irish Whiskey (Irish Mist goes unnamed in the recipe itself, but its use is strongly implied in the introductory text, which reads “Remember that all that Irish Mist isn’t rain — many times it’s whiskey”)

Measure a 22-inch length of aluminum foil; fold in half lengthwise. wrap around a one-quart straight-sided souffle dish to form a three-inch collar above edge of dish. Tie in place with string. In a medium-size saucepan, combine gelatine, coffee, and 1-1/3 cups water. Place over low heat; stir until gelatine is dissolved. Place mixture over ice water. Stir until the gelatine is the consistency of unbeaten egg white. Set aside. In a small electric mixer bowl, combine lemon juice, , 1/2 cup cold water, and nonfat dry milk. Beat at high speed or electric mixer about 6-8 minutes or until stiff. In a large mixing bowl, combine dissolved gelatine, condensed milk and Irish whiskey. Folk whipped nonfat dry milk into milk mixture. Carefully turn mixture into prepared souffle dish. Chill in refrigerator about 2-3 hours or until set. Carefully remove foil collar. If desired, garnish sides and center top with shaved chocolate.

Did you think I was kidding about a torte recipe? I was not kidding. This one is from the Boston Herald from August 10, 1969, but properly should be credited to Mrs. CharlesKickham, a Jamaica Plain woman who married and Irish man and lived in Galway for five years, and so invented this recipe out of nostalgia for her years in Ireland. It is so perfectly 1960s I can barely stand it, made almost entirely from combining a few ingredients with a box of cake mix and then getting incredibly fussy with it, and here it is:

IRISH MIST TORTE ANGELIQUE

1 box yellow cake mix
1 pint medium cream
1/2 cup light brown sugar
3 tablespoons Irish Mist, sherry, rum or brandy
1 tablespoon cold strong coffee
1 square semi-sweet chocolate

Back according to package directions, in two round pans. When cool, using a long sharp knife, cut each layer horizontally into three layers. You have a total of six layers.

Combine liqueur and coffee. You may use 1/2 teaspoon powdered coffee dissolved in 1 tablespoon water, or regular coffee. This is the flavoring.

Beat cream with brown sugar and 1 tablespoon of the liqueur-coffee flavoring until stiff enough to spread. This is the filling and frosting. Place first layer on serving dish and drizzle two teaspoons flavoring over the layer, frost with a little of the whipped cream mixture. Spread evenly out to edges. Top with another layer cake and repeat until all layers are used.

Frost top and sides with whipped cream. Decorate with chocolate curls. (A potato peeler used on a chocolate square makes the curls.)

Refrigerate. This may be made a day in advance. For a fresher look, store the whipped cream for the top and sides in a covered bowl and frost it the day you serve it.

I must say, I think Mrs. Kickham is on to something here. Obviously, the cake should not be made with a store-bought yellow cake mix, and just smearing it with flavored whip cream seems awfully declasse. It might be worth considering making a chocolate/coffee layer cake from scratch and simply topping it with a dab of whipped cream beaten with Irish Mist — or, better still, clotted cream, if you can find it.

Better still, it might be worth playing off the honey and herbal quality of the Irish mist by making a honey layer cake and joining it with a spread of sour cream blended with Irish Mist, sugar, and honey. Heck, add some herbs in. I’m going to recommend burdock, nettles, and dandelion. I don’t know if these will be any good together, but they were herbs favored by the ancient Celts, and, if you’re going to make a torte, you might as well make one that Brian Boru would actually enjoy.

Irish-American Dining: Roasted Mickeys

Dead end: Roasting mickeys down by the East River.

Dead end: Roasting mickeys down by the East River.

To read of it, there wasn’t much to the roasted mickey. Author Abraham Rothberg described the Depression-era food as follows:

During the Depression, potatoes were a staple, cheap and plentiful. Never did they taste better to me, wonderful Long Island potatoes which grew where now sprawl acres of suburban houses and concrete malls. Frequently, we boys, al­ways hungry, took a potato or two from home to roast over fires we built in backyards. We called those potatoes “mickeys,” a term I didn’t connect with the Irish or the potato famine until I was at college.
You took regular potatoes that were easy to steal and put them into an open fire until they were burnt black, You would then pull them out of the fire and peel off the black skin. They were considered a treat in those hard years.”
Were they actually Irish? Irish enough. The Irish had roasted potatoes directly over a fire since at least 1901, as  Shan F. Bullock includes a scene “Irish Pastorals” of a mother cooking potatoes by throwing them into a fire and moving them about with tongs, and then tossing them to her children, who tear off the skin from each potato. They eat the potato, and their dogs eat the scorched skins.

We can see Irish-Americans making Mickeys in the 1937 movie “Dead End,” when the gang of juvenile miscreants build a fire in a barrel right where East 53rd Street meets the East River in Manhattan. They cook potatoes on the end of skewers over it, calling the mickeys. Simple though they were, mickeys are remembered fondly. Sports columnist Jimmy Cannon wrote of them in 1962, recalling:

In the gutters, close to the curb, fires burned all day in cans. We cooked potatoes in them. I’ve never tastes a potato as good as the roasted mickeys which were burned black and hard as hokey pucks.

There was more to it — an occasional hint of larceny, as explained by Arthur and Gloria Mohr in their memoir “Poverty’s Child”: “You took regular potatoes that were easy to steal and put them into an open fire until they were burnt black,” they wrote. “You would then pull them out of the fire and peel off the black skin. They were considered a treat in those hard years.” Author Harry Mazer, recalling roasting mickeys during his childhood in the Bronx, wrote that at night “we built fires in empty lots and roasted mickeys and apples we’d swiped from the stores.”

There were regional variation.  Hooiser author Dick Curtis, in his book “The Way We Were,” recalls wrapped potatoes in mud and placing them directly on the fire. The Washington DC Evening Star posted a recipe in 1970 that included greasing the potato with bacon drippings. “The skins will be hot a crispy,” they promised, making it the only mickey so far where you are expected to eat the skin.

So the benefits of the roasted mickey are twofold, and they are significant, especially for a food that seems to have been favored by children in New York: They were easy to make, and, better yet, they were easy to steal. I am loathe to tinker with a winning formula, but there is nothing that can be done that can’t be made more complicated by a dedicated foodie, so here goes:

The quoted recipes say nothing about piercing the skin of the potato, but this is a good idea, or there is a risk of your potato exploding. And our Dead End kids with their barrel fire and skewers might scorch the skin of the potato until it is inedible, but that’s just throwing away one of the best parts of the spud. Not only is it nutritionally valuable and packed with fiber, but, when made well, it’s delicious. Washington DC had the right idea — the skin takes fat really well, whether you’re using drippings, butter, olive oil, or something similar. This is a great time to add some seasoning as well: consider garlic, paprika, thyme, or rosemary, or any combination of the above

Of course, you can’t do this and then just let your potato dangle above an open fire: The oils or fats will just drip off. Instead, our Indiana chefs had the right idea to pack the potato and put it directly on the fire. But, good Lord, don’t pack it in mud. Aluminum foil will do the trick nicely and, additionally, is also easy to steal.

I’d also like to suggest roasting a few toppings along with the mickey, especially an onion, but you might also roast broccoli, leeks, or mushrooms. These can also be drizzled with oil (or vinegar, or both!) and put into a little aluminum foil pouch to cook. Typically they will take less time — 20 minutes or less — so add them to the fire after you’ve let the potato cook for a while. Once the potatoes are ready, cut them open with a pocket knife and slice off chunks of the toppings.

Of course, you could skip all this and just make a plain mickey with a scorched skin if you like. I won’t complain, and I’m sure your dog would appreciate the treat.

Irish-American Dining: Fried Leprechaun Legs

They’re always after me lucky legs!

They’re always after me lucky legs!

As with whiskey tomato soup, which I have reason to believe was introduced by Kieran’s Pub in Minneapolis, I think the appetizer called Fried Leprechaun legs was introduced in a Minnesota bar. I can’t prove it — I find a reference to a food called Leprechaun Legs offered by a bar called Crazy Horse in Indiana in 1995. But precisely what it was that Crazy Horse was selling isn’t mentioned.

Serving fried green beans as leprechaun legs still seems to be an exclusively Minnesota tradition, and I wish I could say that’s the entire story.
So we leap forward in time more than a decade, to 2007, and this is where we first find the snack I know of as fried leprechaun legs. The bar was Casper and Runyon’s Shamrocks Irish Nook in St. Paul, which is still there, and the food they called leprechaun legs was deep-fried green beans with dipping sauce. The St. Paul Pioneer Press declared that the beans were “sure to be a hit,” and they seem to have done well enough, as they are still on Shamrock’s menu, costing $7.95 as of this writing.

The next year, a competing St. Paul bar named O’Gara’s introduced the snack to an event that is a sort of coming out party for local foods: The Minnesota State Fair, where most of the food is offered on a stick, for some reason, and where locals claim the corn dog was introduced. This time, the Pioneer Press was unimpressed, writing ” The serving of these lightly battered, deep-fried green beans is generous but there was no bean flavor. If you closed your eyes and took a bite, you’d never know what they were.”

The Star-Tribune was more impressed, and revealed what the sipping sauce was, saying the snack was “worth checking out: green beans, lightly battered (and teasingly spicy) and deep fried, with a chipotle ranch dressing.”

Serving fried green beans as leprechaun legs still seems to be an exclusively Minnesota tradition, and I wish I could say that’s the entire story, it’s Minnesotan, rah rah rah for Ski-U-Mah, and here our story ends. Alas, I cannot, as the only innovation here is the name. Fried green beans has an older history,  and it seems to have originated in the Minneapolis of the Pacific Northwest, Portland. At least, that’s where I find the first reference to it, in the Oregonian, dated September 20, 1938. The paper even offers a recipe, which I shall reproduce:

Snip the ends and pull the strings from green beans. Cut diagonally in very thin slices, not more than one-quarter inch in size. Melt two or three tablespoons of shortening, which may be butter or bacon fat or other good cooking shortening. When the shortening is hot add the sliced beans and sprinkle with salt. Cover closely and simmer for about 10 or 15 minutes, or until beans are barely tender.

I will note that this recipe lacks one of the essential steps of the leprechaun legs: bread batter.  Alas, Minnesota cannot even claim that. The innovator for this recipe seems to have been Loretta Keller of San Francisco’s Bizou, who debuted batter-fried green beans with a fig dipping sauce in 1992, frying the vegetable tempura-style. “Although it sounds strange,” the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “the combination should be inducted into any best- dish hall of fame.”

Soon, tempura-fried green beans started to appear on the menus of a number of San Francisco’s Asian fusion restaurants, and then, in 1997, jumped both to a new city and a new cuisine. According to The Orange County Register, the item was offered at Luciana’s at Newport Beach. According to the paper, “The long beans come to the table sizzling, with a tempura-like coating. They are best when hot, and the balsamic vinegar and mild garlic cream sauce add little to the mix.”

Alas — alas! — Minnesota wasn’t even the home of the first Irish pub to offer fried green beans.
Alas — alas! — Minnesota wasn’t even the home of the first Irish pub to offer fried green beans. According to newspaper records, the food first made an appearance at Beckett’s in Walnut Creek, CA, which was offered with soy dipping sauce. Their version wasn’t as well-liked as earlier incarnations. The Contra Costa Times declared the following: “The batter wasn’t heavy, but it was hard. Strangely hard.”

Tempura-fried green beans surged in popularity in the next few years, with an astonishing selection of sipping sauces, and, frankly, here is where I think the Irish pubs, even those in my home town, have gotten it wrong. You don’t make a food Irish simply by affixing an Irish name to it. No, it’s important to actually give it an Irish or an Irish-American flavor. I think tempura frying the green beans is fine, but it is with the dipping sauce that a cook can find the meal’s true Irish spirit.

Frankly, I’m not sure what might be best with this, but there are a variety of Irish and Irish-American sauces to experiment with. There is a mustard sauce that is popular with corned beef, made with mustard, vinegar, and horseradish, that might go nicely with the beans. The Irish are apparently fond of a parsley sauce, and that’s worth a shot; there’s also a cabbage cream sauce that sounds like an odd choice, but who knows? It might be paradise in the mouth.

Anyway, I guess I feel if you’re going to pretend to cut the legs off a leprechaun, the least you can do is dip them in something that’s pretending to be Irish.

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.

Irish-American Dining: Beer Cheese Soup

There are plenty who would argue that beer is already soup.

There are plenty who would argue that beer is already soup.

Cooking with beer isn’t unheard of in Ireland — I don’t think there’s a place on earth where there’s beer where somebody hasn’t decided to add it to food. But when I search for Irish recipes involving beer, I mostly locate beer battered treats, such as monkfish, although there is apparently an old recipe for beef stew that involves beer. Ireland’s neighbor’s across the Irish channel, the Welsh, have a long history of adding ale to cheese to make a savory sauce confusingly called “rarebit” (it means “rabbit”), but this was never treated as a soup or served as one, and certainly not in Ireland. There is an Alsatian recipe called Soupe à la bière, which dates back to at least 1742 and was made with breadcrumbs fried in butter and then thrown into beer. Contemporary versions are sometimes made with stilton and cheddar cheeses, but it seems unlikely that this influenced the recipe we are discussing.

I find a recipe in a 1971 publication from an astonishing organization: Potato Chip Institute International; the publication was called The Potato Chipper.
No, you’ll often find Irish beers mixed with cheese soups in Irish-American pubs, and this way of adding beer to a cheese soup seems to be an American innovation. It’s earliest incarnation seems to have been the result of a concerted effort by the United States Brewers Foundation in the early 1960s. In 1961, the Portand Oregonian tells of something called “Bierstube,” or “beer shop,” which was introduced to hotels, restaurants, and bars in the Pacific Northwest as a new way to encourage the purchase of beers. This included offering German-style foods, some cooked with beer, including a beer cheese soup that the newspaper described as “unusual.” The recipe doesn’t sound especially German, and I will reproduce it here:

BEER CHEESE SOUP

1/4 cup butter or margarine
1/2 cup diced celery
1/4 cup diced carrot
1 tablespoon chopped onion
6 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon dried mustard
6 cups chicken broth
1/4 teaspoon tabasco
1 1/2 cups grated cheddar cheese, or about 6 ounces
1 12 ounce bottle or can beer or ale

Melt butter; add celery, carrot, and onion, cooking until tender but not brown. Blend in flour and mustard. Gradually stir in broth and cook, stirring constantly until slightly thickened. Add Tabasco and cheese: heat until cheese melts. Just before serving, add beer: heat to serving temperature. Add salt to taste if necessary. Garnish with chopped parsley or croutons if desired. Makes eight servings.

The recipe didn’t catch on, except, perhaps, in Oregon, where a restaurant called the Coburg Inn 1877 was still offering a very similar recipe in 1969, but with mono-sodium glutamate in place of Tabasco sauce; similar recipes appeared in Oregon newspapers through until 1977.

A closer recipe to the modern version comes in the 1970s as a rarebit-style fondue (I find a recipe in a 1971 publication from an astonishing organization: Potato Chip Institute International; the publication was called The Potato Chipper.) But a fondue is not a soup. There was also a book called “The Beer Makes It Better Cookbook” published in 1971, which was all about cooking with beer. They offered a beer cheese soup recipe, and it seems to be a simplified version of the Bierstube recipe, with pimiento added.

A trend in cooking with beer had started in America. Beer cheese soup quickly made it onto the menu of a bar/restaurant in Omaha called Grandmother’s — they offered a different homemade soup every day of the week, and Thursday it was beer cheese. Beer cheese soup remained popular in Omaha — in 1979, a local chef demonstrated the value of frozen foods (which Omaha’s Swanson was a leader in) by making beer cheese soup with frozen rarebit sauce, while the same year a restaurant called the Neon Goose offered the soup with popcorn floating in it.

The soup had already found popularity elsewhere. In 1976, a restaurant called the Baby Doe Matchless opened in Dallas and offered a beer cheese soup, which the Dallas Morning News described as tasting “like melted Velveeta with a splash of hops,” which sounds pretty close to the modern version, if unflattering. Here is their recipe:

BABY DOE’S BEER CHEESE SOUP

1/2 quart milk
1/2 quart homemade chicken stock
1/2 ounce monosodium glutamate
1/2 ounce Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup cornstarch
12 ounces beer
1 cup fresh, grated cheddar cheese
Salt to taste

In a saucepan, bring milk to simmering point. . Add chicken stock, cheese, and other ingredients except cornstarch and beer. Simmer until cheese is melted. Make thin cornstarch paste by adding water to cornstarch and use to thicken the soup. Just before serving, add the beer.

I suspect the trend really started to catch on the the 1980s, when Hickory Farms started selling beer cheese soup as a Super Bowl (or, as they put it, “Souper Bowl”) halftime treat, which the promoted widely and annually in newspaper ads.

Now, Irish-American pubs long ago discovered that Americans tend to want the same sort of bar food, regardless of what sort of bar they are in. So there is a long tradition of taking popular bar food and making it somehow Irish. Beer cheese soup was no exception, and it probably one of the easier recipes to do this with — after all, all you really need to do is use Irish beer in the recipe.

Who to credit with this innovation? Hard to say, but the first to get credit in a newspaper was Rita Burke, a native of Ireland, who used Harp lager to make beer cheese soup at McGuinness Pub in Memphis in 2001. Her version included chopped onions, celery and carrots.

If it is to be served in an Irish-American pub, I think it absolutely must be made with an Irish or Irish-American beer or ale.
From this moment, beer cheese soup starts making regular appearances on pub menus: It was the best-rated item on the menu for The Blackthorn Restaurant and Pub in Buffalo, NY, in 2003; it was held up as an example of the authenticity of W.J. McBride’s Irish Pub and Restaurant in Kansas City in 2005, and it was declared a great starter for a meal of bangers and mash at Sullivan’s Restaurant & Pub in North Palm Beach in 2006. Nowadays, it seems less common to see the item off a pub menu than on it.

The quality rangers wildly, from complex, savory soups to melted American cheese in a bowl, and I think some standards need to be put into place for this uniquely American meal. Firstly, if it is to be served in an Irish-American pub, I think it absolutely must be made with an Irish or Irish-American beer or ale. There is a lot of room for experimentation here, as brown ales will give the soup a certain nuttiness, while a stout will likely dominate the flavor while an amber ale might easily be lost under the flavor of the cheese. I’d also suggest using an Irish cheese — especially a cheddar — and perhaps even Irish butter.

I like the earliest recipes, which included savory vegetables — I think celery is an especially good choice, as it will add a bitter umami quality that I suspect later recipes with MSG were seeking to duplicate, but it might also be worth considering ripe tomatoes, which go especially well with cheese. It might also be worth considering adding heavy cream as a thickening agent, rather than flour or cornstarch.

And, whatever you do, don’t call it a Souper Bowl. Oh, it pains me just to type those words.

Irish-American Dining: Green beer

There's just not enough green on St. Patrick's Day.

There’s just not enough green on St. Patrick’s Day.

Oh my Lord, to hear people speak, you’d think green beer was the greatest crime against Ireland since the  Battle of Rathmines. It’s held up as the supreme example of Irish-Americans having a manufactured, tacky, pretend Irishness, because, one day out of the year, we dye our beer green. I don’t know what’s so offensive about it. It can’t be that it adulterates a perfectly good beer — the Irish mix beer with sparkling lemonade and call it a shandy.

“GREEN BEER ON DRAUGHT. Yes, actually green in color, with which to fittingly celebrate ST. PATRICK’S DAY! And it has all the goodness of real Bock Beer, yet it is G-R-E-E-N!”
Never mind, though. It doesn’t matter than green beer isn’t authentically Irish, as I have never seen anyone claim that it is. It’s an Irish American innovation, and not a new one either. I don’t know exactly when it was first done, but I know when it was first reported: March 17, 1917. The Cincinnati Post wrote that the Cincinnati Elks enjoyed green beer on St. Paddy’s, courtesy of an undescribed “chemical process.” That’s almost a century ago, which may not seem like a long time in Ireland, where one family might claim to live in the same thatched cottage for a thousand years, but, I assure you, for Americans, a century is long enough for a tradition to be respectable.

Admittedly, I don’t find another mention of it until 1936, but oh what a mention. It appears in an ad for Rueger’s Famous Fine Foods in Richmond, VA, printed in the Times Dispatch:

“Startling new!” it reads. “GREEN BEER ON DRAUGHT. Yes, actually green in color, with which to fittingly celebrate ST. PATRICK’S DAY! And it has all the goodness of real Bock Beer, yet it is G-R-E-E-N!”

From that point on, green beer became a staple of St. Paddy’s, appearing everywhere. There is, for example, an ad in the Daily Illinois State Journal from 1939 that reads “Yis, begorra, and we’ll be having a grand time at The Bowery … serving Irish Green Beer,” accompanied by a crude image of a man in a suit clenching his hands and saying “Mother mechree.”

Green beer was a point of discussion in a 1947 rape case, weirdly enough. The Seattle Daily Times reported on the case of Frank M. Staley, who was accused of having attempted to assault three women in or near Seattle. (Thankfully, he seems to have failed all three attempts.) One of the alleged assaults occurred on St. Patrick’s Day, providing Staley with an alibi: He was at his uncle’s. “Like most good Irishmen, we celebrated,” the uncle testified. “We stayed at home and drank some green beer.”

This confused an attorney, who asked, “You mean beer that wasn’t fully fermented?”

“Oh, no,” the uncle replied. “I surprised the others by adding some green food favoring to the beer.”

This is the first description we find of food coloring (here called flavoring), but that’s probably how it was usually done — food colorings were popularly used in the mid-1800s, often to make adulterated food more presentable, and even though America had strict rules about what coloring agents could be added to food dating to 1906, by 1938 FD&C Green No. 3 had been completely cleared for use in foods.

The practice had even moved to the country’s capital by 1949, as the DC Evening Star wrote in an article titled “Some D.C. Bars Serve Green Beer for St. Patrick’s.” But it seems to have been around in the capital for longer — a few years later, in 1951, the same paper offered an obituary of a local named George S. (Pete) Dailey, who was the proprietor of Pete’s Restaurant and was known as the unofficial Mayor of Foggy Bottom. “Mr. Dailey gained note for always serving green beer on St. Patrick’s Day,” the obituary noted, “and old customers remembered that goats, at one time, wandered in and out of his picturesque restaurant.”

So we have established green beer’s bona fides as something that existed at least since goats ran through restaurants in Foggy Bottom, and that it was typically made with food coloring — online recipes suggest just a few drops will do. But, honestly, that sounds like a foodie nightmare. There must be a better way than crass chemicals to make beer the right color.

There is a long tradition of dropping shots of liquor in beer.
I have found a few suggestions. The first is wheatgrass juice, although that will make your beer taste a little, well, wheatgrassy. Another, and, in my opinion, worse suggestion is spirulina, as it’s hard enough to gag down cyanobacteriain health food, much less for fun on a holiday. The goal is to color the beer in a way that will improve, or at least complement, the taste of the beer.

My suggestion? Chatreuse. There is a long tradition of dropping shots of liquor in beer — the most unfortunate example being the Irish car bomb, which is inevitably and stupidly offered by bars on St. Patrick’s Day, oblivious of its negative connotations. Let’s replace this with a drink made by dropping a shot of the green, herbal Chatreuse into beer on St. Paddy’s, or, for the really bold, drop in Elixir Végétal de la Grande-Chartreuse, a 138 proof version of Chatreuse sold as a tonic.

Drink until you see green elephants, and sure isn’t each of them just as Irish as you are?