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.