The Best Irish Pub in America: Bar Snacks: Tayto Crisps

Tayto Crisps.

Tayto Crisps.

If there was one recommendation I could make to Irish pubs in America that would instantly and inexpensively improve them, it would be to offer British and Irish pub snacks. Many bars — especially dive bars — already have snacks behind the counter, including candy bars, potato chips, and sometimes ice cream. People belly up to the bar and after a drink or two often get the idea they might like to snack on something, and here’s your chance to take them on a culinary trip to Ireland.

Other flavors offered now and then include roast chicken, pickled onion, and wuster sauce.
There’s never been a better time, and there’s no better an option. This food is easy to order on line, inexpensive, and have a long shelf life. Let’s start with today’s example: Tayto Crisps. It is just now possible to get a 25 pack on Amazon.com for $32.50 with free shipping. Sell each for $2 and you’ve made yourself a tidy profit of $17.50, and the only work required is to clip them to your bar mirror and hand them to a patron when they get peckish.

I’ve started with Taytos because they are one of Ireland’s most recognized brands, and they are potato chips, so bar patrons are likely predisposed to eating them in a way they may not be with other snack food I will write about. Tayto offers something called Pork Scratchings as well, made of fried pork rind and sold in little packets, and that’s probably not going to be immediately appealing to American tastes.

Tayto crisps, however, are perfectly recognizable as potato chips, albeit they are typically offered in a range of savory flavors:  Cheese & Onion, Salt & Vinegar, Smokey Bacon, and Prawn Cocktail; other flavors are offered now and then, including roast chicken, pickled onion, and wuster sauce.  The texture is recognizable to American palates; its a bit like Pringles. But it is the selection of flavors that make chips from Britain and Ireland so unique, as they are almost always flavored in this way.

The snack originates in County Meath, and have proven to be so successful in Ireland that “tayto” is sometimes used as a general word for potato chips, and there is Tayto-themed amusement park in Ashbourne that, for some reason, has several Native-American styled attractions. The smiling, red-jacketed mascot proved recognizable enough that Tayto ran him as a candidate in the 2007 Irish General Election, and he has his own fictional biography, “The Man Inside the Jacket.”

A number of Irish venues in America have already started to experiment with offering Taytos, and seem to have had success with them. They are one of the snacks offered by the gift shop in the Irish American Heritage Center in Chicago, which was a source of much amusement for Conan O’Brien when he filmed a visit to the center in 2012.

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: 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?