My mother’s voice rings in my ears from the kitchen: “I need a volunteer to peel the potatoes, please!” Oh, no — the dreaded task every child tries to avoid. As a family of six, we all sit one room away in front of the TV, glancing back and forth between one another seeing who will break first. Who will give in? Who is going make the agonizing walk to the kitchen in order to spare my mother’s temper? Although this task is grueling, it is quite necessary.
The potatoes are peeled and the carrots are cleaned. I am told to wait for the beef to brown just enough in the simmering bottom of the pot before adding the vegetables. With everything in the pot, we add the stock. Instantly, the kitchen is filled with the rich, savory smell of beef stew. But wait! My mother always said that the best beef stew simmers for at least an hour, so we wait.
Although my mother is preparing the stew, the true master of this meal has yet to arrive. I always knew that when stew was being made, I could expect to see the whole family that night. That is the great thing about this recipe, the recipe that defines my family; its connection to our ancestry has made it a familiar and flavorful favorite for everyone in the family! All my mother had to do was make one phone call, and then relatives would be over almost immediately for us to share our meal with.
As the simmering hour for our stew came to an end, the master of the meal excitedly walks through the front door: Grandma Lois. It is almost as if my mother’s preparation of the meal was a personal test for my grandmother to grade. My mother always wished she could cook like her mom. She keeps us fed, but nothing beats Grandma’s cooking.
Beef stew stems from a traditional Irish stew dish. I traced my Irish heritage through my Grandma Lois. Her father’s great-grandmother emigrated from Ireland to North America in the nineteenth century due to many factors. His great-grandmother was Bridget Nash, an 8 year-old at the time of the famine. Her family immigrated to Ontario, Canada, where she did most of her growing up. When she had children, she and her family moved south to Chicago, Illinois, where my Grandma Lois was born a few generations later.
The Irish came to America for many reasons: the English, the Great Famine, and the promise of land and food America offered. In the early nineteenth century, Great Britain had control of Ireland. The English and the Irish did not get along well; the English were wealthy Protestants that “rented” out the land to the poor Irish Catholic farmers. The English regulated what crops the Irish grew on that land and shipped most of it back to Great Britain, leaving the Irish with little food to eat. In September of 1845, Ireland’s potato crop grew infected with potato blight, a disease that destroyed the whole crop. This event, known as the Great Famine, lasted for six years and is considered by historians as the one major turning point in Ireland’s history. Nearly one million Irish died from starvation. The English took a majority of their food, and the potato blight ravaged what was left. For these reasons, more than one million Irish, including my ancestors, immigrated to North America in the mid-nineteenth century with the promise of land and food.
Most members of my family are strong practicing Catholics. We attend church every Sunday; we always pray before we eat to express our gratitude for having food to eat; we celebrate all the Christian holidays and make sure to attend church these days; we fast 40 days before Easter — specifically refraining from consuming meat and choosing to give up something we love to do. I love my family! I grew up practicing all these Catholic traditions ever since I can remember. I am aware these Catholic roots originated from my Irish ancestry, but, currently, all of my known relatives are in America, either in Chicago, Illinois or somewhere in the south. I have never been to Ireland, but I would love to go!
The family’s stew recipe is a heavily Americanized version of the original Irish dish. Traditionally, my ancestors made the stew with lamb. When the potato famine pushed my family to immigrate to North America, the protein of the dish changed from lamb to beef since cows were more plentiful. The traditional dish also contained potato and carrot peels. The Irish would use the leftover vegetable scraps to make the stew. In America, with crops more obtainable and in better quality, the scraps were replaced with whole potatoes and carrots. The utilization of scraps in the traditional recipe explains why stew is considered a peasant’s meal. With abundant amounts of lamb and excess vegetable scraps, the ingredients made the dish cheap. It appears that the Irish’s transition to America upgraded the dish quite a bit.
The original recipe also calls for Guinness, an Irish dark beer. As I was briefing Grandma Lois on this project, she told me a story about how she experimented with the beef stew recipe. Neither my grandma nor my mother make beef stew with Guinness. I suppose that addition to the recipe was dropped a few generations back. One day, my grandma tells me, she decided to try the recipe with the beer, in an attempt to “Irish” up the meal a little bit. Well, that did not go well according to her. Not only did she describe how terribly the food tasted, but she also told me her house smelled sour for a week! We might be Irish by blood, but it seems as if our taste buds are more American than Irish. After hearing this story, I plan on making the dish with Guinness, just so that I can try it for myself. How Irish are my taste buds?
As I dive deeper into my family’s history and the history of Irish stew, I hope to better understand the impact the Great Famine directly had on my family. With that, I hope to more clearly see the evolution of Irish stew as its recipe was passed down through generations in my family. On the surface, the Great Famine and my family’s location in North America seem to be the most obvious catalyzing factors in the evolution of the dish. I will be conducting an interview with my Grandma Lois to better understand how the dish has evolved and through what factors fueled the evolution.
1. Where were you born?
2. Where were your parents born?
3. How many people were in your household growing up?
4. What was your family like growing up?
5. What part of your heritage are you aware of?
6. How did you come to learn about your heritage?
7. How has being Irish and German impacted your life?
8. What do you know about the Great Famine?
9. Have you ever been to Ireland or Germany?
i. If so, what about the culture there caught your attention?
ii. If not, would you like to go?
10. Can you describe the first time you ate beef stew? What did you like and dislike?
11. Who taught you how to prepare beef stew?
12. What do know about the history of beef stew?
13. What do you like and dislike about the dish now?
14. What changes to the recipe have you noticed since the first time it was made for you?
15. What changes, if any, would you make to this recipe?
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“Irish Potato Famine: Introduction.” The History Place. The History Place, 2000. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.
Kelsey, Mary. “Stew.” Encyclopedia.com. HighBeam Research, 01 Jan. 2003. Web. 5 Oct. 2015.
Lloyd, David. Irish Culture and Colonial Modernity, 1800–2000. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011. Print.
O’Connor, Sharon, and James Keane. The Irish Isle: New Irish Cuisine: Traditional Irish Music. Emeryville, CA: Menus and Music Productions, 1997. Print.
Orel, Harold. Irish History and Culture: Aspects of a People’s Heritage. Lawrence: U of Kansas, 1976. Print.
Thernstrom, Stephan. “Ireland, 1600–1800.” Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard U, 1980. 524–45. Print.