Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Holiday: St. Patrick's Day Traditions

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The tinge of orange in my beard reveals that I have significant Irish ancestry, though admittedly most of the year I basically ignore that fact. The only exception is on St. Patrick's Day, when even those who aren't Irish claim to be. Today, as March 17th, may officially be St. Patrick's Day, but to me the observed St. Patrick's Day is the nearest Sunday, when the parades are traditionally held.

While living in the Boston, Massachusetts area, with its high concentration of those of Irish ancestry, I developed a routine on observed St. Patrick's Day. It would actually begin on Saturday night as I would bake Irish-American soda bread and sweet potato pie in preparation for the following day. On the day itself, I would take the Red Line Subway to the Broadway station to watch the St. Patrick's Day Parade. While most people watched the parade from somewhere along Broadway in the ethnically very Irish South Boston, over the years I learned that the really interesting things occurred as the parade worked its way back through the side streets of South Boston toward the Andrew subway station. In some places, it would feel like crashing a block party, as people had their buffets out on the sidewalk.

The parade was a long one, and even walking counter-current to the route back toward Broadway, it could go on for nearly three hours. When all of the floats and South Boston politicians had passed, I'd rush back to the subway and head straight back home to start cooking. More accurately, I'd start boiling. The New England boiled dinner that I adopted as the St. Patrick's Day meal couldn't be simpler--everything was boiled. I'd put the corned beef in a big pot and start boiling, then peel and chop up the vegetables, and then realize that I didn't have enough time to get everything done, and would inevitably put the vegetables in other pots in order to have everything finished by the time people started showing up about 6 pm.

The first time I did corned beef on St. Patrick's Day, it was 1999 and I had only one friend over. The next year, after I moved to a room in a house near Davis Square in Somerville, the event began to grow as my housemates and landlord all came, as well as a few friends. I think the peak year was 2003, when about twelve people came over for the full meal, ending with sweet potato pie, and 2004 had nearly that attendance.

However, I suspended the event in 2005 because I had moved to a place without a good dining venue, and a business trip was scheduled too close to observed St. Patrick's Day. In 2007, after moving to Toronto, I decided to see if I could revive the tradition. I was pleased to find the Toronto St. Patrick's Day parade to be a pretty significant and fun event, probably only half the length of the Boston parade but still big enough to be a real draw. The bonus of a somewhat shorter parade starting at the same time was that I had more time to cook--the tricks I had learned cramming in Boston were not necessary.

So, Sunday was ninth time I celebrated St. Patrick's Day. In that time, I've learned how to improve the recipe I had for Irish-American soda bread into something that I actually like to eat, that I should buy corned beef at St. Lawrence Market and not from the grocery stores in Toronto (groceries stores carry briskets year-round in Boston), and that leaving the cabbage in the boiling pot used for corned beef for a longer period of time than most cookbooks recommend really does help the taste and texture.

Next year, I'll be ready to do everything right for my tenth St. Patrick's Day celebration.

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