It’s almost 7pm, and I’m sitting at a two-top at the Horse Brass. I’m trying to think of what to write again, nursing a locally-made Baltic Porter and staring at the empty broiler boat that- until very recently- was holding about 8 pickle spears for $3.50. No sales tax.
Where else would I be now? I’m a beer nerd with a cloak on a rainy day in Portland near Mount Tabor. I’ve got the back half of a short week at the bakery to start tomorrow morning, the blessing of my boss, and ideas for how my weekend will go. Where else would I be but here?
I might be back in Jersey. That beer might be a more expensive local brew, but those pickles might have been the Pickle Plates at Downbeach Deli that still live in my memory- their selection of greyed full-sours and perky green half-sour pickles supporting recurring guest stars of Pickled Onion, a Cherry Pepper, and a few wedges of Green Tomato atop a pool of commingled brine. That is, if they were ever separated at all.
Maybe it’s the beer and time of year, but I can feel the rose-colored Nostalgia Glasses settling into place. I’m gonna tell you about some fond food memories.
I’d normally apologize for missing posting for three weeks in a row, but in this case my wife and I have been traveling in Ireland for a long-awaited honeymoon, came home, and quarantined with Covid for a week. Therefore, between finally getting out to travel and coughing up a solid quart of mucus, I’m not going to be apologizing for shit.
Instead, I’m going to tell you about where everything good comes from.
We wound our way from Dublin to the Aran Islands, through large cities and smaller villages with various amounts of tourist-minded accoutrements. We ate at small pubs and fine restaurants, and I had enough Traditional Irish Breakfasts that I’ll be pleased not to see a black or white pudding for a while.
Everywhere we stopped though, we always sought out the same thing- what is everyone else eating, and where is the best stuff? Almost every time, it was out of the way, made well, and made simply.
Whether you are dining at a Michelin-starred restaurant or an airport fast food joint, all food has its source in simple questions: What can we eat? How do we eat it? How do we make it good?
Ireland is, arguably unfairly, not considered a “food destination.” We were warned of that by a well-meaning travel agent friend and had it confirmed to us by others after we returned. I wouldn’t say Ireland doesn’t have good food. Emily and I found plenty of places where the food was excellent- The Laurels Pub and Restaurant and The Celtic Whiskey Bar and Larder, both in Killarney, come immediately to mind. There are certainly more and finer places elsewhere in the country that we didn’t get to visit.
Instead, what I will say is that Ireland knows what its foodis about, doesn’t get overly fussy about it, and doesn’t particularly care if it impresses outsiders.
As Emily and I wandered around Dublin, we noticed that almost every pub- from the tiny one just off the road to the biggest and busiest bar in the Temple Bar Area- had the exact same menu. It truly seemed like the decision of “which pub to go to” could truly only be decided by personal or logistic factors- which was closest to you, where your friends usually were, which bartender you knew best, who you thought poured the best pint, and whose prices you thought were best. All other factors- food, beer, whiskey selection- were essentially static.
The menu was nearly always a set thing, nailed down out of convenience and tradition- heavy, meaty, starchy, stick-to-your-ribs, stone-in-your-gut food meant to fill you and go with a pint. If you are spending your days wandering from tourist spot to tourist spot, you will get sick of the monotonous “Irish cuisine” really quick and find yourself going find Chinese, Mediterranean, Japanese, or any of the other cuisines that one can find in a worldly metropolis- whether or not you’ve been getting wrecked on Guinness and whiskey every night. I enjoy my booze just fine, but Emily and I were happy to find places like Lee’s Charming Noodles and Rotana City a few nights.
If you don’t get outside of major cities (or don’t have a budget to visit a Michelin-starred restaurant), you can absolutely come away from a trip to Ireland thinking more fondly of the booze than the food, and all I can say about that is that you weren’t in the state the food was ever meant for.
Toward the end of our trip, Emily and I were in Galway and we spent a stormy day on Innishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands in Galway Bay and home to a long and happily-commercialized history of fishing, sheep farming, and knitting. It had been raining nearly constantly since we got to Galway and we were indeed equipped for rain, but being halfway out into the North Atlantic meant the rain was more like a storm. The one small town on the island was cozy, but anything that we wanted to see or do that didn’t involve drinking or buying sweaters meant renting some bikes, rolling through the cliffs and hills, and getting wet.
It was after biking along the wet and winding roads for a while that Em and I bellied up into Joe Watty’s- the local Irish Pub- and encountered The Menu again. This time, however, we were in the right state for it. The seafood chowder was the best I’d had in ages, and Emily tackled her fish and chips with a vengeance. We both annihilated our beers, and- sitting in yet another pub with the menu we’d gotten weary of in Dublin- we got it.
The food in that pub was meant for the rainy, cold days on the North Atlantic when no matter what you were out in it doing your thing- shepherding sheep or tourists, hauling in fish or selling knitwear. The food in Dublin pubs was still food for soaking up a beer or two after a hard day.
It was the same, functional, tasty, stretchable cuisine it had always been. It was meant to feed and sate more than tantalize. It was meant to make us ready to go back out into the rain, not waddle off to the next tourist trap. It’s been doing the job well enough for a few centuries, and it doesn’t need your snarky Yelp reviews thank you very much.
No, we all shouldn’t go back to eating gruel and nuts. There’s room to actually enjoy food at the table beyond subsistence and yes- get someone hungry enough and they’ll eat nearly anything. We shouldn’t disparage comfort food just because we don’t need comfort when we’re eating it though. We don’t get to write off a whole country as “not a food destination” just because we’re not the audience the food was created for. Food was, and is, an aspect of culture. The ability to appreciate food holistically- as part of world and where it fits in the culture that created it- is as pivotal to appreciating good food as appreciating technique, history or pedigree.
I look forward to traveling more, tasting more, and challenging more of my preconceptions about “food destinations.” Especially once I can taste things clearly again.
When someone cooks for you, the food can tell you where they came from, what’s important to them, what influenced them, and what they dream of being and doing. On one plate, everything from the ingredients to the cooking methods to the service style can give you a veritable masterclass in the entire culture the dish came from.
Then there’s people like me who try to write about all of that and what’s more, make a buck off of it. It takes no small amount of hubris to assume you can summarize a multimedia, multi-sensory experience to words on a page. Sometimes the only thing that encourages me in trying to do so is that 1. Someone has to, and 2. People have.
If you grew up in the late 80s and 90s like I did (and probably before,) your parents warned you not to talk to strangers. Strangers were strangers. They could be anything or anyone. They could hurt you, or steal from you. They could follow you home.
Then we grew up, and we quickly found that strangers are friends you haven’t met yet. They can also lead you toward your next great steps in life.
He was brand new. We had trained him for a week- he had a ways to go, but he took his tasks on, did the work asked, and didn’t make a fuss. He asked questions about the nuts and bolts of recipes, he asked about when we took breaks, and how he should clock in and out for them.
“Ten years in the business,” he said. “Started as a dishwasher at 16, worked up to prep, then line cook.” Covid took him out of the kitchen he’d called home and the bakery had work that needed doing. He wasn’t picky- he just needed to work.
Wednesday night, he went to party. Thursday morning, he never clocked in- a hangover made staying home more appealing than showing up for his shift.
A no call/no show. He can stay home as long as he likes now.