When I was a teen-ager, I dreaded St. Patrick’s Day and the inevitable corned beef and cabbage that Dad would boil up for dinner. He’d slice it and I’d dissect it, trying to separate the fat from the meat. (If you’ve ever eaten corned beef, you know this is no easy task.) Then, I’d drown the meat in mustard, shake on a little pepper and mash it all up until it was an unrecognizable blob. If the flavor of the meat came through, I’d add more mustard. Ditto for the cabbage. The potatoes and carrots were fine, albeit bland, on their own.
As I grew older, the mustard-to-beef ratio decreased until I finally started to eat it condiment-free. I don’t know if it was a matter of taste or tradition, but I realized that’s the way it’s always been in my family – the way it should be.
My Grandma Marion started eating corned beef and cabbage as a girl in the Boston neighborhood of Hyde Park – long before she became an Andresen. As soon as she and her sister, Helen Mulhern, were old enough to sit at the table, boiled dinner became synonymous with St. Patrick’s Day.
“We’d drop dead if we didn’t have corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day,” Grams said, laughing, when I asked her about it. “We’d almost have to tell that in confession: ‘Oh, Father, we didn’t have corned beef and cabbage. How many rosaries do I have to say? How many Our Fathers?’ That’s Irish humor, you know.”
Oh, I know. I grew up in Maine (a fact Grams and Aunt Helen don’t let me forget), but I was born in Boston to an Irish-Danish father and an Irish-German mother, and no amount of distance can separate me from my roots. This year, I thought I’d revisit those roots, so I called Grams and Aunt Helen. I wanted to know what St. Patrick’s Day was like when they were growing up. They had plenty to say.
“Ah, the way we were,” Grams sang into the phone like an off-key Barbra Streisand. “We weren’t really the South Boston Irish, but my father was. My father was first-generation American.”
“We were second-generation,” Helen said.
Still, they grew up in a predominantly Irish neighborhood, back when there were bucolic areas of the city. There was a potato farm across from the Mulhern home and the people at the end of the street had three goats. Hyde Park was off the beaten path, so the St. Patrick’s Day celebration was pretty low-key.
“When we were younger, all we did was have corned beef and cabbage at home and wear all green and buy a green carnation,” Aunt Helen said. “Usually, we’d go to Mass because St. Patrick is the patron saint of Boston. … Oh, and we’d buy the plant with the four-leaf clover. I never remember the name of it.”
“It’s a shamrock, Helen.” Grams shouted in the background. “And it’s got three leaves. It represents the holy trinity. That’s how Saint Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland, I think.”
Their celebration in Hyde Park isn’t much different from the way it is today. Grams and Helen live in the same building in Quincy, though they don’t share an apartment. They buy green carnations to wear on their lapel and they usually go to my Aunt Karen’s house for corned beef and cabbage. This year, Karen is in Florida, though, so Grams will cook it herself – if she can ever get the pot clean.
“I bought a big pot last year to cook it in, but this year I burned the pot, so I can’t use it,” Grams explained. She boiled it dry trying to humidify her apartment and she hasn’t been able to get all the black off. “I may buy another.”
When they were young women, working on their own in Boston, Grams and Helen wouldn’t cook. They’d go out for a lively lunch.
“We used to go to Quincy Market and go to the Black Rose or Houlihan’s,” Helen said. “We’d drink a grasshopper because it was green. I don’t think they had green beer in our day.”
“Everybody had a good buzz on,” Grams chimed in.
Grams said that with all the sad Irish songs people sang, they needed a “good Irish brew” afterward. During the festivities, there were plenty of happy songs and step dancing, too.
“They’d sing ‘They All Got Drunk at Steve O’Malley’s Wake,'” Helen said. “And then, of course, ‘Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder.’ You know that one, don’t you?”
I told her I didn’t.
“Oh, jeez, Kristen,” Helen said. “You’re lacking in your education if you haven’t heard that. You should’ve been raised in Boston.”
For once, Grams agreed.
Grandma Marion’s Corned Beef and Cabbage
Marion recommends using gray corned beef, which is cured without chemical preservatives. “It isn’t appealing to look at,” she says, “but it sure does taste good.”
1 gray-cured corned beef brisket
1 head cabbage, cut in wedges
Small red bliss potatoes, scrubbed, with skins on (Marion recommends 2 per person, “but it your father were coming, we’d up it,” she says)
2-3 bay leaves
Black peppercorns to taste
The night before St. Patrick’s Day, weigh down the corned beef in the refrigerator to flatten it.
When ready to cook, place slab of corned beef into a large pot. Fill with water until beef is barely covered. Add bay leaves and peppercorns. Bring to boil and reduce heat. Simmer over low heat until meat is tender all the way to the center (anywhere from 11/2 to 3 hours, depending on weight).
Put cabbage and potatoes in with the corned beef. You can add beets and carrots as well, but Marion doesn’t. Simmer about a half-hour, until “the fork goes through the cabbage nice and easy.”
Remove beef from pot and place in a colander to drain. Do not pour off the liquid – save it and use it to boil potatoes the following day.
Slice the beef, and place in the center of a large serving dish. Using a slotted spoon, remove cabbage from the water and mound it around the beef. Remove potatoes and arrange in a circle around the beef and cabbage. Then “serve it to your friends, your family, whatever. Just enjoy it.”