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Cabbage meets corned beef - the stir of family memories brought forth by this traditional Irish American meal

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Granny Farragher
Granny Farragher

Corned beef and cabbage are two great tastes that taste great together.

I’ve heard numerous versions on how best to prepare it -- boil the meet twice, once to remove the salt; boil the meet first and use the same water for the cabbage, etc.

Then there was this time that my brother introduced the beef with the cabbage while we were in Ireland that became stuff of legend in my family.

I couldn’t have been more than seven and my brother Brendan was looking forward to starting school at the end of the summer. My father had clocked countless hours of overtime on the New Jersey Turnpike for this moment -- we were stepping out of the Dan Dooley Rent-A-Car and into the house of Granny Farragher.

She was there, peering over a green hedge as sharp as the crease on a pimp’s pant leg. This tough, grizzled old bird melted into a puddle of emotion as she outstretched her arms and welcomed her darling son home.

My little brother Brendan wasn’t paying much attention to this Hallmark Card moment unfolding on the front lawn. His eye had widened once he caught the chickens and roosters that clucked and pecked in the pen nearby.

Being from Jersey City, neither one of us had ever seen livestock -- what the organic food snobs among us would call “grass-fed beef” and “free range chicken” today.

Sure, there might have been that Catholic grade school field trip to the Turtle Back Zoo, where we saw the animals caged (and pet turtles and frogs to our heart’s content, gloriously oblivious to the salmonella they carried), but these animals in Ireland roamed free!

Uncle Paddy, my dad’s bachelor brother, would have scraped the crumbs from the toast of the morning’s breakfast into his palm and shook it into the pen, inspiring a cloud of feathers to flap at our feet. Brendan would stare blankly, transfixed.

Paddy would usher us away, eager to show the visiting Yanks the rest of the farm for the first time, but Brendan would linger a moment longer at the henhouse to watch the birds polish off the crumbs.

It was hard to get Brendan off the old horse Tom once he sat on him. He made no bones about pushing myself or these new Irish cousins we had just met out of the way so that he could feed Tom in the field next to Granny’s house. During our week-long stay there, the pair became fast friends.

Granny was a whirl of emotion inside the small galley kitchen in the back of the house, preparing a ham and cabbage lunch for the weary travelers. Everything had to be exact and the house was bursting at the seams with Yanks and local family, so the pressure was on the woman to deliver.

You can understand how she would dismiss the young boy absent-mindedly when he asked if there was anything in the kitchen to feed the cows that grazed behind the stone wall a few feet away.

“Eh, no, pet,” she would say, her knobbed thumb brushing the wisps of dyed brown hair that escaped the hard and pulled back bun on her head. “Run along and find something else to do.”

Obviously, Granny didn’t know little Brendan and the steely-eyed focus he has to this day. And weren’t those little eyes focused on the pale green sliced cabbage that was cut into quarters on the drain board?

Granny shifted her pipe cleaner body to reach for something on the top shelf, and that was all the opening Brendan needed. He tucked two quarters of cabbage under his arm and held the other two in his hand, his legs running as fast as they could toward the stone wall.

He had two cabbage quarters hurled over the fence toward the delighted cows before Granny knew what hit her. She spotted this out of the corner of her eye and ran out of the door.

“Well, God blast yeh!” she screamed out of the top of her lungs. In Farragher Gaelic speak that was common in these parts of Athenry, this translated into a string of four letter words not suitable to be printed in this family paper.

Corned beef and cabbage met that day in a backward manner that still makes me smile each time I say grace over that meal this time of year.

Mike Farragher has just released his new book, This Is Your Brain on Shamrocks2: 50 Shades o’ Green. For more information, log onto www.thisisyourbrainonshamrocks.com.

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