I was going to abstain from saying anything about Irish food. All I could come up with was that the strong point of most Irish meals is usually the attitude of the eaters. But then, late in the week, a marvelous little book, "In Praise of Irish Breakfasts," arrived in the mail and my abstinence was broken.
Not only was the book written by Malachi McCormick, a native of Ireland now living on Staten Island, it was designed, handwritten and illustrated by him. He finished making the 495 offset copies of the 38-page book early in March, just in time for St. Patrick's Day. It joins a list of other handcrafted books on Irish poetry, food and stories that McCormick has turned out from his Stone Street Press on Staten Island. (Signed and numbered first-edition copies can be had for $15 each by writing the press at 1 Stone St., Staten Island, N.Y. 10304)
I read "In Praise of Irish Breakfasts" in about half an hour. It made me laugh and it made me hungry. Such were McCormick's powers of persuasion that I am even rethinking my long-held reluctance to eat kidneys. "Today," he writes, "many pale at the mention of liver or kidneys; doesn't anyone know anymore how delicious this stuff is?"
The gist of McCormick's argument is that breakfast is the meal the Irish do best. Some have suggested that the best way to eat well in Ireland is to eat three breakfasts a day.
His fondness for the first meal of the day began in County Cork, where McCormick was raised by a family of "inveterate breakfasters." Even amid the rationing of World War II, his home had the intoxicating aromas of thick home-cured slices of Irish bacon rising from the skillet in the kitchen. And he says the egg yolks from the free-ranging wartime hens had an orange color so intense that a "burning Van Gogh would pale beside" them.
For McCormick, the end of the war meant the "new world order of breakfasts" had dawned. "We could have as many eggs as we wanted: I became quite dizzy with excitement. Black and white pudding came into my world, calves' liver, lamb's kidneys, lamb chops, even . . . The soft boiled egg with hot buttered toast, an art in itself."
Freed from wartime restraints on the menu of his favorite meal, McCormick moved to London where he and his housemates reveled in the glories of group breakfast. "The genius of breakfast as a social event is such that no matter how many people showed up, to set an extra place was never a big deal. Sometimes we had twenty people in the kitchen, all enjoying their own personal permutations of various breakfast elements, such as egg, bacon, liver, mushrooms; several large dogs worked the room, looking for soft touches; all nine of London's Sunday papers (each sleazier than the next) were being picked over by the gang; 'Get this!' "
It was at one of these Sunday morning gatherings that McCormick came up with an inspirational answer to a question that had been troubling him, the "what-to-drink-for-breakfast dilemma." His answer: "A red-hot poker is dramatically plunged into a mug of stout."
Now living and eating in America, McCormick passed along these additional insights into an Irish breakfast.
The bacon is better in Ireland. It is thicker, and has much less fat on it than the bacon in American groceries. Fried mushrooms, he said, become magical in the presence of good bacon.
The best thing to put between a slice of Irish brown bread and Irish smoked salmon is some New York delicatessen cream cheese.
The best attitude to have toward the high fat content of bacon and eggs is to remember that "a little of what you fancy does you good."
And finally, to justify our existence on the planet each of us needs to aspire to do one thing better than anyone else. McCormick's one such aspiration is to make the perfect scrambled egg. Here is his recipe:
McCormick's secret to perfect scrambled eggs
2 tablespoons water
pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon unsalted butter
Break eggs into bowl, add water and salt; beat eggs with fork.
Melt butter in small saucepan over low heat; add the eggs. After a minute the eggs will start to coagulate. When this begins, with a wooden spoon gently scrape the cooked egg off the bottom of the saucepan and move it to the middle. Liquid egg will flow into the vacated space, and be cooked in turn. Keep repeating this process of scraping and moving; it will take about 2 minutes.
Here comes the secret: Since overcooked eggs lose that quintessential eggy-yolky taste, you must arrest the cooking process while some of the egg, about one-tenth of the volume, is still runny, so the cooked egg has a generous runny yolk glaze over it.
At this stage, quickly take the eggs off the heat and put them on a hot plate with, not on, some hot buttered toast.