St. Patrick's Day, South Boston way

IT has been whispered that the Irish have been known to exaggerate just a wee bit on occasion. But when it comes to food, they tend toward brutal frankness. ``Honestly, I don't know if Irish food is worth writin' about, you know,'' says Brendan Rogers with a brogue as thick and soft as a Limerick fog.

Mr. Rogers, vice-consul general of Ireland in Boston, continues: ``St. Patrick's Day is a religious holiday over there. We don't dress up in green hats and dance around like they do in Boston. It's all rather quiet. Nothing very special in the way of cookin', really.

``We serve a lot of bacon and cabbage,'' he adds. ``I think corned beef was an American adaptation because the bacon here was either too expensive or, most likely, corned beef was lean and more like our bacon in Ireland.''

``Southie,'' as it is affectionately known, is Boston's solidly Irish community, and it is as closely knit as a fisherman's sweater. Here St. Patrick's Day is celebrated any way but quietly. There's a parade of local bands, including local politicians trying their best to look Irish.

Green paper hats, shamrocks, and ``Kiss Me, I'm Irish'' buttons are the dress code of the day, and everything that can be poured into a glass is dyed green.

Bill Drobia -- ``My father's Polish but my mother's a Duffy through and through'' -- is head chef at Farragut House on Paul M. Daley Square. The yellow-brick restaurant, with its green rug, wallpaper, menus, and Naugahyde booths, is always packed to its green walls with local clientele.

``The Irish like their meat and potatoes,'' says Mr. Drobia. ``Nothing fancy. We put out a traditional Irish beef stew and soda bread on Wednesdays and a good boiled dinner every Thursday. We always sell out. I tried doing a seafood Provenal over linguini once. Sold one order to my boss. Something like escargot? -- forget it!''

As far as St. Patrick's Day goes, it will be more, much more, of the same at Farragut House. -- Irish stew and boiled dinner. Mr. Drobia is laying in 250 pounds of good fresh gray brisket of beef.

``I'll simmer it 4 to 6 hours in water and fresh lemons, then add the vegetables after they're cooked,'' he says.

If there's a secret to a good beef brisket dinner, he suggests the vegetables be cooked -- separately if possible -- in a beef stock. He uses turnips, carrots, onions, potatoes, cabbage, and beets.

I happened to meet Bill Ryan walking, cane in hand, up L Street. ``Irish food,'' he huffed, ``darn right it's good. My wife served it to me for 57 years and 10 months and raised five children on it at the same time. She was a McManamy -- bet you can't spell that! That was her maiden name. And she could cook. Spareribs and cabbage, New England boiled dinner, spareribs and spinach, too, a lot of shepherd's pie, and Irish trifle.''

At Flanagan's Market on East Broadway, corned beef is already on sale for $3.49 a pound. Meat manager Jerry Gaglioni is stocking up for the St. Patrick's Day onslaught. ``We'll be getting 15 barrels of fresh corned beef in next. That's over 1,700 pounds. Plus 30 boxes in Cryovac [a vacuum pack]. That's another 1,200 pounds. We're getting in some blood sausage, too. Not much.''

Down at West Broadway, beside Mr. McGoo's ``Pizzas of Distinction'' -- you can't miss the sign with a green leprechaun holding a pizza over his head -- a number of elderly women are lined up for the bus.

``Any of you women know anything about Irish food?'' I asked. ``Oh my goodness,'' a woman in a gray quilted coat and fur hat piped up. ``You won't find much here in Southie. You have to go to Ireland.

``I was there a few years ago with my husband. We stayed in a lovely hotel in Dublin. Bacon, scones, tea. Tea boils all day on the back of the stove. Just don't get the last cup of the day.

``And potatoes! We had three kinds of potatoes in one meal. Boiled, creamed, and I forget the other way. Not much in the way of vegetables but wonderful potatoes,'' she continued.

``How would I define the food in Southie?'' She pondered for a moment. ``Filling. Sometimes they dye corned beef green on St. Patrick's Day. That really offends me,'' she said with a scowl.

``The kids come over and we watch the parade on St. Patty's Day, but they're not much for Irish food. I guess they're tired of it. I mean, after all, they were raised on it, you know.''

The Irish vice-consul in Boston sent me a recipe for bread from his mother-in-law in Ireland. He and his wife always serve it with imported Irish salmon at special functions. Irish Bread 2 cups whole wheat flour 1 cup white flour 1 cup bran 1 cup wheat germ 1 teaspoon brown sugar 1 teaspoon baking powder 1 teaspoon baking soda Pinch of salt 1 pint milk, plus more if necessary Butter

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

In large bowl, mix all dry ingredients thoroughly.

Add milk until mixture is very wet. Kneading is not necessary.

Pour into 5-by-3-by-10-inch well-buttered meatloaf tin.

Bake for 45 minutes. Irish Stew 2 pounds lamb, cut in cubes 3 large onions, sliced 2 pounds potatoes, sliced 2 cups beef or chicken stock 1 large bay leaf Salt, pepper, thyme to taste 3 sprigs parsley, chopped

In heavy casserole alternate layers of potatoes, lamb, onions, and seasoning and parsley, ending with potatoes on top. Add bay leaf.

Boil stock and add. Bring back to boil, cover, and simmer gently until lamb is tender, about 2 1/2 hours. Add water or broth during cooking if necessary. Shake occasionally to keep stew from sticking. Or cook casserole in 350 degree F. oven for about the same amount of time.

Serves about 6.

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