I love special days, holidays. At their root, all of them involve food in some way. It’s fun to explore special foods and traditional dishes, especially in the ambience that surrounds such a day. The other part of these days is the social celebration. Gathering together to share the food and the spirit of the day is essential to the fun. What’s not to love about all that?
I am not so much a fan of commercial efforts to popularize a holiday; green beer, for example, is not my thing. It’s not an Irish tradition to have green beer on St. Patrick’s Day, but rather a Guinness or other Irish brew. I like the opportunity to try the local specialty. Even as a kid I was not a fan of the then-trendy Shamrock Shake at McDonald’s.
Some say that it’s a travesty to bastardize tradition by commercializing the essence of a holiday, but sometimes there are benefits. In the mid-70’s McDonalds used some of the proceeds from Shamrock Shake sales to fundraise with the Philadelphia Eagles. This not only benefited the child of one of their players but also helped to create the Ronald McDonald Houses.
St. Patrick’s Day food is all about the meat and potatoes. Corned beef and cabbage is a popular dinner, as is colcannon (a combination of mashed potatoes and cabbage) usually served with lamb or even sausages. There is traditional bread too – brown bread and soda bread. I find it a bit filling to have potatoes and bread at one meal, so I like to have soda bread for breakfast. It would be delicious with Beef & Guinness Stew as well, though. The stew takes a bit of time to make, but it’s worth the wait.
Ultimately the best part of St Patrick’s Day is to share one’s good blessings with a friend. Even if you only get down to the local pub for a green beer, you can at least enjoy that fraternal sentiment. In case you’re not familiar with an Irish toast, here is an easy one to use: “Sláinte”. (That’s “cheers!” in Gaelic, pronounced “slancha”.)
One last bit of advice before you head out, from the Irish themselves:
Saint Patrick was a gentleman,
Who through strategy and stealth,
Drove all the snakes from Ireland,
Here’s a toasting to his health.
But not too many toastings
Lest you lose yourself and then
Forget the good Saint Patrick
And see all those snakes again.
Spring has definitely sprung in our part of the world, and every day there is a new reminder of the splendor to come as the sun shines longer and the air warms on our cheeks. New blades of grass poke through the mulch of last year, and shoots that promise daffodils and tulips show braver every day. It also seems to be a time however, when we are reminded of the circle of life and how sometimes we must honour the changing of the guard. It is a good reminder of the value of true friendship, which is indeed a precious commodity. If you will grant me a little poetic license this week, I would like to explain. This column is not so much about food, although that certainly anchored the friendship I will recount, but it is of great importance so I hope you will read on.
This week is the fifth anniversary of the death of a very old friend, Riley, someone who was close to another friend I lost around the same time – my Brown Girl, Satchmo. Some of you will shake your heads at my sentimentality perhaps, but the loss of four-legged friends is a blow that strikes a special place in your heart. I feel the need to honour this friend because of the significance of his friendship and also the timeliness of his passing. You see, he was Irish, and so it seems only fair that he be remembered on the most famous of Irish days. And besides, that was also Mo’s birthday, and he was one of her favourite birthday pals. Allow me to paint you a picture if I can…
It is an early misty morning at Kits Point in Vancouver, with the sun just barely brightening the sky and only a few joggers out on the path. The park is alive however, with the sounds of happy snuffling in the grass and low voices chatting amongst the trees.
It is the dog owners of Kitsilano, and they are out with their four-legged friends for their daily constitutional. For many, this means more of a pilgrimage to the top of the Point, where a certain fellow named John waits in his yellow rain jacket with his pal close by – a staunch and dapper Irish Terrier named Riley, who knows he is King of the Hill.
There is not a dog who has been to the park more than twice who does not remember this man, as he has pockets that contain an endless supply of biscuits. Owners who are otherwise strict go to pieces when in John’s vicinity, for he is renowned at his ability to convey pet owner’s guilt… He recounts their pet’s supposed commentary on just how hard-done-by they would be if they were left out of the gift-giving. Everyone ends the visit by realizing that the odd cookie never hurt anyone, and a little attention goes a long way. As the group parts company for each to carry on with their day, there is always a smile on each face – two-legged and four – that helps them start the day right.
Many of those folks grew older together, and eventually we even learned the names of the other owners! There was a special camaraderie that developed in those early mornings. Even after my girl Satchmo went blind, one of the few times she would run was when she heard John’s familiar voice on that hilltop calling her name. She and Riley continued to wrestle and taunt each other even when he started to go blind too, and we all got a bit greyer. When we moved away from Vancouver and would return for a visit, we always made it back for a morning hello. Over the years many faces have come and gone, and generations of owners and dogs have now been a part of things. Riley and Satchmo passed the torch onto future furry pals who would show their owners the benefits of enjoying morning moments and other pastimes. Riley and John set a standard for friendship and generosity that needs to be practiced in today’s world more than ever, reminding us that we will be handsomely rewarded for taking the time to stop and enjoy a biscuit or a sweet-smelling spot in the grass.
So, Riley, here’s to you. Thank you for all the memories; it was truly a pleasure to be in your company. I hope you and Satchmo are having a good old romp in the spring sunshine. I shall drink to you this St. Patrick’s Day, with this adapted toast in mind:
May the smells rise to meet you
And the wind be always past your nose;
May the sun shine warm upon your coat
And the biscuits fall gently from a hand.
And until we meet again,
May the Lord hold you safe in his Land.