My interest in the traditional Irish-American meal served in celebration of Saint Patrick's Day began when I was a schoolgirl living on Elm Place in Nutley, New Jersey.
Our street was populated by a diverse assortment of families. There were Jews, Catholics, and Episcopalians and other Protestants. There were Polish, Irish, German, English, and Scottish homeowners. This diversity contributed to my interest in understanding how people of different religions and nationalities celebrated holidays and rites of passage. Big Martha was also very interested in all holidays and was always looking to expand her cooking repertoire.
The Rebenacks were a large Irish family (there were six kids, with whom we all felt a kinship) who lived across the street. I loved visiting my friend Barbara, the eldest daughter, in their stark, almost empty kitchen (a contrast to our cozy and very busy one). A favorite snack after school was a perfect baked potato snitched from under the aluminum dome of the stove-top roaster where Mrs. Rebenack cooked her family's daily potatoes.
The first time I tasted the Saint Patrick's Day feast at the Rebenacks, I ran home and begged my mother to cook the exact same menu -- Irish soda bread with salted butter, corned brisket of beef simmered with big, round boiling potatoes, huge wedges of winter cabbage, giant bright-orange carrots, and chunks of pale-orange rutabagas, served with freshly grated horseradish and spicy yellow mustard.
We went to the Nutley Co-op and purchased a big corned brisket and all the fixings. The brisket was corned by the store's butcher. He had his own recipe for brining the meat in a large crock in the back of the store. The word corned had nothing to do with the vegetable, the butcher told us, but rather with the large kernel-size pieces of salt that customarily went into the brine. The butcher also gave us tips on how to cook it: rinsing the brisket, boiling it, draining it, and then simmering the beef slowly, until tender. The vegetables were cooked separately, some in the simmering liquid, and the potatoes and turnips in their own pots of fresh, salted water. Mother made a great soda bread, filled with caraway seeds and currants.
For years after that, we always celebrated Saint Patrick's Day with a big traditional feast. My sister Laura Plimpton always makes it for her family, adding parsnips. My friend Torie Hallock, in Somesville, Maine, and her husband, Compton, actually turned me on to corning my own beef, and the recipe below is an adaptation of theirs. The soda bread is a delicious, crumbly version I created one morning when I had few ingredients in my larder and needed to make several loaves for the Irish in my life.
Kevin Sharkey just has to have soda bread and Irish butter on Saint Patrick's Day, as does Christine O'Neill, my new assistant, who also plays the bagpipes and drinks Guinness dyed green. My hairdresser and makeup artist, Mary Curran, loves Reuben sandwiches made from her mother's leftover corned beef. Kevin always brings out his shamrock-bedecked handkerchiefs, ties, boutonniere, table linens, and bedding for Saint Patty's Day.