American food writers love to bandy about the word “authentic” when describing ethnic restaurants. (And we’ll have to admit right here that we’re no exception, so just stop composing your hypocrite-nailing, “caught-ya” letter.) We all should cease using the word “authentic” when referring to American versions of international dishes. In reality, there’s no such thing as recreating an authentic regional flavor outside of that geographical region. Try as you might, no American restaurateur can capture the flavor of a wood-grilled taco al pastor, eaten on a balmy summer night, on a Mexico City square. Why? Because Mexican pork is different from American, the corn tortillas are different and, who knows, the water’s probably different. American al pastor is, at best, a close approximation. It will never be “authentic.”
This is not news to any immigrant trying to retain his foodways in the U.S. It’s the perennial American Experience: cooks have had to alter recipes to accommodate American produce, meats and other ingredients–they’ve even had to adapt to American cooking equipment. (Our favorite local taco al pastor? It’s cooked on a re-purposed gyro machine that the owners of Little Mexican Café found in the back.) Lucky for us, the adapted recipes of immigrant cooks, which reflect hundreds of adjustments from their native recipes, have lead to American pidgin cuisines. These are foods not quite like home, but not quite American either: I’m thinking here of American Chinese restaurants featuring dishes alien to China (like chop suey, General Tso’s chicken and appetizers of crispy fried noodles); or “red sauce Italian” restaurants serving up foods foreign to Italy (like chicken parm, baked ziti, and calzones).
But that’s what happened with the huge, late 19th-century immigrations from China and Italy. Surely, with today’s modern shipping and importation routes, immigrants can access any ingredient they need? While that’s probably true, it’s neither practical nor cost effective. As relayed in Bill Buford’s Heat, a famed pasta maker from the Emilia-Romagna was recently invited to recreate her signature dish at the James Beard Foundation. She found to her horror that even though she’d brought her own flour from Italy, New York water had a different alkalinity (and therefore, different properties), plus, our eggs tasted different. In her eyes, the dish she served at the Beard House was a disaster. And while an American restaurateur could conceivably import Italian eggs and water, he’d have to charge $50 per plate of pasta. Since most customers would balk at that price, the conclusion is foregone: cooks fudge their recipes with what’s cheap and commonly available.
All of which is a long-winded preamble to what we’re really going to discuss this week: authentic Irish food. It turns out that the dishes that we, as Americans, have accepted as Irish foods are nothing of the sort. Like chop suey and baked ziti, “Irish” soda bread and corned beef and cabbage are as American as apple pie.
The rich, sweet loaves that we’ve come to know as “Irish” soda bread were actually an innovation of prosperous Irish immigrants. According to an article in the New York Times by Melissa Clark, the American dish is characterized by expensive ingredients like sugar, butter, cream and raisins: this makes it fundamentally different from the austere soda-leavened breads found in Ireland.
And while the poor of Ireland (who made up most of the Irish emigrating to the U.S.) might have eaten preserved pork and joints of bacon, they weren’t eating corned beef, simply because beef was much too expensive even in its preserved (corned) form. Pigs, which scavenge their own meals and can survive on refuse, were the more common protein source of the poor—if the poor were lucky enough to get some protein, that is. The Irish/corned beef connection came when the Irish immigrants reached New York. Plopped on Manhattan’s Lower East Side (along with all the other tired, poor, huddled masses), these new immigrants had trouble sourcing the cheap preserved pork that anchored their diet. Casting about, they found an approximation, at a price they could afford, in neighborhood German and Jewish shops selling corned beef.
If you ask us, the debunking of “Irish” soda bread and corned beef and cabbage comes as a huge relief. We are of partially Irish descent and eating these dishes, even only once a year, was frankly punitive. There are so many better, more “authentic,” Irish foods that actually taste nice. I’m thinking here of chewy, nutty Irish oatmeal like McCann’s, scrumptious Durrus cheese made by Jeffa Gill and champ, the butter-soaked mashed potatoes improved by handfulls of chopped scallions. (Champ, you might notice, is the only greenish food on our list—and the color comes from scallions, not food dye.) We like a drop of Jameson’s, while we’re at it — and once a year, we’ll have a hand-pulled, resolutely room-temp Irish stout like Guinness.
Okay, so there’s a lot of bogus Irish going around. But here’s the thing: Yonkers is home to a huge neighborhood of recently emigrated Irish. According to the 2005 Westchester Databook, of the roughly 196,000 people living in Yonkers, more than 25,000 claim Irish ancestry. Of those, many are recent arrivals, as a quick stroll down eastern McLean Avenue will reveal. (This densely Irish-native neighborhood shares a border the equally Irish Woodlawn section of the Bronx.) While we won’t call the eateries below “authentic,” we will venture that that the food and drink served here hasn’t been subjected to a century-long game of cultural “telephone.” It’s geared toward recent immigrants who know from Irish food—it’s a bit closer to the source.
So this year, instead of choking down mediocre versions of something that’s not even Irish, we suggest that you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day where brogue is spoken: Southeast Yonkers.
Eileen’s Country Kitchen 964 McLean Ave, Yonkers; (914) 776-2001. As noted in the New York Times, this self-proclaimed “Irish Diner” catering to recently arrived is open 24 hours a day, but Sunday morning is the hottest time to visit. Once you’ve secured a table, tuck into slabs of Irish bacon, blood sausages, Irish porridge, and oatmeal—or visit later in the day for Irish salmon, shepherd’s pie, or fish and chips with malt vinegar.
Irish Coffee Shop 946 McLean Ave (914) 776-3309. A cozy alternative to Eileen’s for weekend breakfasts, look for great brown bread and Irish stew, too.
An Siopa Beag Deli 977 McLean Ave (914) 237-1915. Stop in for Irish imports, prepared foods and Irish-style meats like sausages and bacon
Traditional Irish Bakery 4268 Katonah Ave (718)994-0846; traditionalirishfoods.com. Located just over the Bronx border in Woodlawn, this Irish superstore carries freshly baked scones, barm brack (a traditional spiced black bread), Irish-import groceries and a wall of Cadbury’s candies.
Prime Cuts Butcher Shop 4338 Katonah Ave, (718) 324-9262. Also just over the border, this traditional Irish butcher grinds all of its sausages in house, plus offers traditional Irish boiling bacon.
Rory Dolan’s 890 McLean Ave (914) 776-2946; rorydolans.com. One of the things that most distinguishes pubs in Ireland from their American counterparts is that in Ireland, pubs are where the entire neighborhood gathers, and that includes married couples, fortysomethings and even grannies. In America, walk into any O’Lucky McShamrock and you’re likely to find the same bunch: a strictly under-thirty crowd trying to pick each other up over pints of Stella. The vibe is totally different. (And the last time our entire neighborhood enjoyed a convivial evening chatting together the event was actually a local house fire).
Cue Rory Dolan’s, where the food is questionable (as are the drink specials like its Jameson’s appletini), but that only likens the spot to a real Irish pub. Rory Dolan’s features live Irish music, imported-from-Dublin comedians, and a host of Irish beers that range beyond the bog-standard Guinness: look for Murphy’s Stout and Magner’s Irish Cider on tap. Best of all, the crowd is age-mixed and packed with brogues—and you won’t need a burning house to justify talking with your neighbor.