Good bread is the kind of heritage kids enjoy

March 01, 1998|By Rob Kasper

ST. PATRICK'S DAY, March 17, is still two weeks away, but those of us who claim Irish ancestry have been busy cultivating our roots.

Learning about Irish history has become a legal deal lately as lawmakers in Maryland and a handful of other states have proposed bills mandating that the public schools teach students about the Irish potato famine.

In an effort to keep up with the O'Legislators, I have been watching, reading and cooking anything that hints of Ireland. I watched "The Irish in America: Long Journey Home," a documentary about the Irish in America shown on Maryland Public Television. I read "Angela's Ashes," a memoir by Frank McCourt about growing up in Limerick, Ireland, in the 1930s and '40s. And I baked some soda bread, a staple of the residents of the Emerald Isle.

After watching the three-part, 5 1/2 -hour TV series, not only can I say, "I stayed awake," I can also add "I learned something."

I learned that around the 1840s much of the population of Ireland was dependent on potatoes. For some, the potato was the only item in their diet. It kept them healthy.

But when a blight hit, the "potato people" of Ireland were devastated. Their landlords, some Irish, some English, tried various schemes, some promising, some stupid, to improve life for the lower classes. One self-improvement method that got a lot of takers was to leave Ireland.

In the subsequent decades, waves of Irish, among them my grandfather from Skibbereen and my grandmother from Cahirciveen, migrated to the United States. For three nights the television in our family room told the story of how these immigrants worked their way into American society.

For three nights, my teen-age sons wandered in and out of the room, stopping to watch segments of the show that caught their attention, moving on when they got bored.

I had hoped that my kids would focus on the parts of the show that told them they are descendants of a people known for their love of language, their hard-working nature, their storytelling. My sons, however, seemed primarily interested in the parts of the documentary that described their ancestors as guys who were good with their fists.

They perked up when they heard stories of the free-swinging Irishmen who built the Erie Canal, accounts of the gangs of Irishmen who fought their way into jobs on the Philadelphia waterfront, and the tale of champion boxer John L. Sullivan, who once fought 72 rounds in blazing Mississippi heat.

That is the trouble with exposing the members of the younger generation to the history of the tribe: They often remember the parts you have tried to forget.

Something similar happened to me when I read "Angela's Ashes." I was impressed with the way the Irish author had taken such a grim story -- growing up in grinding poverty with an alcoholic father -- and had told it with grace, humor and compassion.

Some of my older Irish-American relatives, however, disapproved of "Angela's Ashes." It is their belief that the unseemly parts of Irish history should be played down, not written down.

Finally, as for the soda bread, I struggled with it. First of all, I had a difficult time nailing down exactly why soda bread, not yeast bread, became the fixture on the Irish supper table. The explanations that make the most sense are the ones that concern the climate in Ireland and the peat fires once common in Irish kitchens.

Since yeast performs erratically in Ireland's cool, drafty environs, it makes sense that home bakers would prefer a bread that used baking soda, not yeast, as its leavening agent. Moreover, baking this bread did not require a wood fire. Wood was scarce in Ireland. Instead, a soda bread could be placed in a pot, topped with a lid, then covered with the embers of a peat fire. The results were quite predictable and agreeable.

I found a simple yet authentic-looking recipe for soda bread in "Cooking With the Two Fat Ladies" (Clarkson/Potter, $25, 1998), written by Clarissa Dickson Wright and Jennifer Paterson, two large Englishwomen who have a cooking show on cable television.

Once I started making the soda bread, I discovered that the recipe was imprecise.

The recipe called for "enough buttermilk to make a dough." By trial and error I figured out this amounted to 1 1/2 cups of buttermilk for about 3 cups of whole-wheat and self-rising flour.

It talked about adding "the fat" to the flour, and that, I figured out, meant 1 tablespoon of butter. Eventually I formed the wad of dough into a bread-like shape and put it on a baking stone sitting in a 400-degree oven.

After 25 minutes, the soda bread was ready to come out of the oven, but its bottom refused to let go of the stone. I told myself I should have used a peat fire.

Despite my struggle, the soda bread was a success. When it came out of the oven, it filled the house with a pleasant aroma. The teen-agers gathered around it and quickly polished off a few slices of the brown, roughly textured, slightly sweet bread.

Eat up, I told the lads, enjoy your heritage.

Pub Date: 3/01/98

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