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Food and Drink

Going green for mighty Ireland

Here comes St. Paddy's Day, just one week from today and, though I doubt the RMOW will be dying the local river green like they do in Chicago, a week's notice gives plenty of time to come up with creative ways to celebrate all things Irish - other than sucking back a pint of green beer. Ugh.

Why celebrate St. Patrick's Day in Canada? For starters, many an Irish soul has shaped our fair land over the years, including my great grandparents, who were among the millions who migrated here starting in 1825. Historic painter Paul Kane was also in that early rush.

I like to think that maybe one of my smarter ancestors took up with the pirate queen and chieftan, Gráinne (Grace) O'Malley, likely the best-known person from County Mayo. But in reality they were, variously, ordinary weavers and farmers who got out of Ireland just before the worst of the great famine set in.

About 14 per cent of Canadians - Stompin' Tom Connors, Mary Walsh and Brian Mulroney among them - claim at least a quarter Irish blood today, making them the fourth largest ethnic group in the country.

We Canucks can also lay claim to the longest running St. Patrick's Day parade in North America. Montreal, which sports a shamrock on its city flag, has been hosting a St. Paddy's Day parade every year since 1824. And Labrador and Newfoundland have even made St. Patrick's Day a provincial holiday, with a day off for everyone just as they enjoy in Ireland.

It's also worth a tip of the Irish cap to such a small country if for nothing else than pumping out so much talent: U2, The Chieftans and The Pogues; Gemma Hayes; Roddy Doyle, Oscar Wilde and Mr. Joyce; the whole darn Cusack family, Richard Harris and Patrick McGoohan. I mean, only an Irishman like McGoohan could have come up with the cult TV show, The Prisoner. And Francis Bacon could only have been from Ireland.

Then we've got the potatoes. After a pint of rich and creamy Guinness - one could be grateful enough for that alone - potatoes leap to mind as symbol of all things Irish. And so they should, given they pretty much supported the nation for some 300 years after Sir Walter Raleigh introduced the tuber from its origins in Chile and Peru.

Before the famine years, my ancestors were likely subsisting on three potato meals a day. The potato, mixed with milk, provided a bland but balanced and reasonably healthy diet for farmers. Then the potato fungus hit and half of Ireland emptied out.

With so many great potatoes pouring out of Pemberton Valley - the Yukon Golds, the Russetts, the Red Chieftains, Purple Peruvians, Sieglindes and the fingerlings - Whistler is perfectly positioned for March 17. If Grand Falls, New Brunswick can build the world's biggest igloo, one that holds 300 people, why couldn't Whistler make a shepherd's pie that feeds 300? Top it with Pemberton mashed potatoes and Guinness Book of World Records here we come!

Since that concept is as remote as it is exciting, I went off on a more practical vein and searched for the official celebratory dinner instead.

Despite our claim to Irish fame, neither my family nor my mom's, from whom our Irish bloodlines flow, served any special dishes for St. Paddy's Day other than mashed potatoes and maybe lime green Jell-O topped with whipped cream for a flourish. It was the colour of the Jell-O that counted, a counterpoint to the shamrocks made from fuzzy green pipe cleaners that we would dig out to wear each year.

Turns out this was all more typical than we realized. Even though St. Patrick's Day has morphed from its roots as a Catholic holiday and into a more secular celebration, we have it from the horse's mouth that no one cooks a special dish to mark the day in Ireland either.

"To be honest, you don't really eat anything traditional on St. Patrick's Day you wouldn't eat any other day," says Eddie Calvey, who tends bar at Dubh Linn Gate Old Irish Pub in the Pan Pacific Hotel in the village.

Only 3-plus years ago, Eddie left his small village of about 1,200 people in County Meath, the county directly north of Dublin, where his dad was a dairy farmer and produced their own milk that made milk from the store seem like water.

"Basically, most people go to church and go to the pub, and there would be a parade as well that will go on, and all that sort of thing," says Eddie. (He came to Whistler after snowboarding for a week, then Googling the best place in the world to snowboard.)

"You would have a big dinner with your family, but it would be a traditional dish like an Irish stew - just something you would have everyday like meat and potatoes and some boiled vegetables, like some cabbage or carrots or peas, something like that."

The order of events might vary - people might come home first for the mid-day dinner before heading to the pub.  And the food will vary, too. Potatoes might be roasted instead of mashed, and the meat might be a round steak slowly baked for hours in beef broth until it's tender and renders rich gravy for the turnips or carrots and potatoes.

Or shepherd's pie could be the centrepiece, although the price of lamb has gone up so most people use ground beef instead of lamb to make it. (When that happens it really should be called cottage pie, but the name shepherd's pie still sticks.)

To top things off, Eddie's mom might make a sherry trifle - yes, an English dessert! - as she would for Christmas. But overall, as you can see, St. Patrick's Day is markedly extraordinary for its deference to ordinary food.

If we've gotten your gears going now about how you'll celebrate March 17 and you're not into making your own Irish stew or shepherd's pie, at Whistler you really can get the real thing at Dubh Linn Gate. True to the spirit of the day, they'll be serving all the traditional Irish dishes they usually do, and Eddie and his bar mates will pull you a decent pint of Guinness to boot.

Personally, I think it would be the perfect spot to start a movement to make St. Patrick's Day a national holiday across Canada. After all, why should Newfoundland and Labrador again have all the fun?

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who's well aware that "Bartosh" doesn't quite sound Irish.