Category Archives: Traditions

Wild Herb Custards

Savory custards are not as well known as their sweet counterparts these days,  but it is a dish that was commonly prepared historically in Europe and Asia.

I often make them for our first day of spring meal, as this is the time of year when the stores from the last harvest were dwindling and many were getting by on cheese, fresh dairy and eggs from the livestock that started producing in the spring, and whatever wild greens were popping up. It just makes sense that this is probably the time of year when they were made frequently as they would have been running low on flour to make tarts and pies.

I’ve seen this recipe made most often with wild leeks or wild onions, but I used chives because that’s all I have growing right now and I am more of a gardener than a forager.  You can really chop up any wild greens you have a plentiful amount of now to throw on top.

Chances are if you see this recipe on a site from the UK the proportion of milk and cream will be different.  The dairy products we get here in the US have a lower milkfat content, so I have fiddled with the recipe to get a good texture.

Wild Herb Custards

¾ cup whole milk
1 ¼ cup heavy whipping cream
4 large eggs
1 cup finely grated white cheddar cheese
5 Tbsp. finely chopped herbs

Preheat your oven to 300 degrees. Mix the first four ingredients, well.  Place your custard cups in a glass baking dish.  Fill the dish with boiling water until it comes up two-thirds of the way on the custard cups.  Fill the cups 2/3 full of the mixture from above and then sprinkle the chopped herbs on top.  Cover the cups with a piece of parchment paper and place them in the oven. The custards need to  cook for 30-45 minutes depending on the size of your custard cups.

When they are done, the mixture will have set up and a tester inserted in the middle should come out clean.

Irish American Aspects of St. Patrick’s Day

I have a historical look at the Shamrock written for  the Herbal Academy’s Herbarium. .  Look for that soon!

 

I was talking to a friend last night about the impending Irish celebrations around town and we got to talking (as I do about when I drink whiskey) about exploring the Irish American culture separately from Irish culture.  They are, after all, two different groups. They share a history up to a point, but you got to stay and we had to leave. At that point, our cultures diverged.

It sometimes seems that the descendants of the first wave of Irish nationalists who were forced from Ireland before An Gorta Mór are particularly well indoctrinated as to their heritage. There are history books that cover the Irish American experience before 1845 that speak to this. I have ancestors from both eras and I tend to agree.

It only makes sense that those Irish who were forcibly removed from a land they held dear would fiercely and stubbornly cling  to traditions that quite understandably seem to have waned in Ireland, as nationalism took an ugly turn in the form of car bombs and terrorism.

I think after  discussing it with friends and reading a few good books on the subject I’ve decided that Irish Americans do tend towards being “more Irish than the Irish themselves” sometimes to the point of overkill.

Still, I believe the Irish American culture has the right to expression. We don’t have to do everything the way the Irish do, because we aren’t Irish.

Unfortunately, sometimes that is no more understood by an Irish born person than it is by the millions of nitwits that flock to the bars for green beer and Irish Car Bombs on St. Patrick’s Day.  (May I digress for a moment to offer a sincere “to hell with you” to the person who named that drink.)

I think that the biggest mistake some people who write about these things make, is trying to link everything we do now with some practice from Ireland. As much as I love researching about folk healing and making traditional foods,  some things are uniquely ours and that’s okay, too.

So with that in mind, I’d like to take a moment to discuss some of the Irish American traditions surrounding St. Patrick’s Day.

Wearing Green Clothing

Wearing green on March 17th, is an Irish American thing.   Green is not the national color of Ireland, even today.  It’s is a shade of blue (azure) that Douglas Hyde called “St. Patrick’s Blue” when they started using the presidential standard at the end of his presidency.

The Irish Volunteers took the shamrock as their emblem in 1777, and when the United Irishmen splintered off from that group they took the emblem and color, with them.

Wearing green or a shamrock in the “caubeen” (hat) was a symbol of supporting that group and considered a crime.  Some young nationalists were hanged while others were exiled to penal colonies in America and Australia.

“The Wearing of the Green” is a song that dates to a time shortly after an uprising led by the United Irishmen in 1798, was stomped out. Like a lot of Irish songs that came with the emigrants, there are many versions but this version is distributed by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania as a resource for teachers.  I would argue that this is an Irish American folk song as opposed to an Irish folk song.

“The Wearing of the Green”

Farewell! for I must leave thee, my own, my native shore,
And doomed in foreign lands to dwell, may never see thee more:
For laws, our tyrant laws, have said that seas must roll between
Old Erin and her faithful sons, that loved to wear the green.

Oh! we love to wear the green, Oh! how we love the green,
On native land we cannot stand for wearing of the green,
Yet wheresoe’er the exile lives, tho’ oceans roll between,
Thy faithful sons will fondly sing “The wearing of the green.”

My father loved his country, and sleeps within her breast,
While I that would have died for her, may never be so blest;
Those tears my mother shed for me, how bitter they’d have been
If I had proved a traitor to “The wearing of the green.”

There were some that wore the green, who did betray the green,
Our native land we cannot stand thro’ traitor to the green,
Yet whatsoe’er our fate may be, when oceans roll between,
Her faithful sons will ever sing “The wearing of the green.”

My own, my native Island, where’er I chance to roam,
Thy lonely hills shall ever be my own beloved home;
And brighter days shall surely come than those that we have seen,
When Erin’s sons may gladly sing, “The wearing of the green.”

For we love to wear the Green, O, how we love the Green!
Our native land we cannot stand for wearing of the Green!
But brighter days must surely come than those that we have seen,
When all her sons may proudly sing, “The wearing of the Green.”

It is songs like this that led to Irish Americans wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day here in the US. If you talk to an older native of Ireland chances are they have never seen it done, before recent years.

Boiled Dinners

For Irish Americans, corned beef and cabbage is the traditional food of the day.  Corned beef is not even just a little bit Irish.  In Ireland, they use “rashers” or back bacon  (it’s a type of bacon that’s even a little meatier than Canadian bacon)  to make a boiled dinner.   We can’t get back bacon here in the US and corned beef probably seemed as good a substitute as any.

There was a precedent of cooking meat in water for the feast, though.  Some historians say that this custom started due to a legend about St. Patrick’s turning meat into fishes, by putting it in water. In the 12th century Bishop Jocelin wrote:

“Many of the Irish, wrongfully understanding this miracle, are wont, on Saint Patrick’s Day, which always falls in the time of Lent, to plunge flesh-meats into water, when plunged in to take out, when taken out to dress, when dressed to eat, and call them fishes of Saint Patrick. But hereby every religious man will learn to restrain his appetite, and not to eat meat at forbidden seasons, little regarding what ignorant and foolish men are wont to do.”[1]

It doesn’t seem as though his advice was heeded as is evidenced by the continued preparation of boiled dinners or stews for the St. Patrick’s Day feast.

Interestingly enough there was just a report released by the Catholic News Service  about some US dioceses handing out a St. Patrick’s Day dispensation for eating  corned beef this year despite it falling on a Friday.

Parades

Obviously, given the date on some of these references, the practice of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day is an ancient practice.   But like many feast days in Ireland, the day started with mass, proceeded to dinner and probably ended up in a public house with chums.

It wasn’t the public outcry that we Americans seemed to need to make of it.   We tend to do that, you know.  Look at how we turned what was once social dancing into a competitive sport.

St. Patrick’s Day was popularized in the US as a national day of publicly and proudly celebrating your Irish heritage, despite the discrimination the Irish faced when they arrived in the US.  That was probably due to the fact that they were able to — having escaped the tyranny of the English and come to the land of the free.

Parades are an extension of this “Kiss My Irish Ass” philosophy and definitely an Irish American invention. The first St Patrick’s Day parade was held by the Boston Charitable Irish Society, 1737. [2]  The first parade on Irish soil happened in 1975, as their celebration of the day became more public in order to keep up with ours.  It’s kind of cute that I found a few Irish blogs that claimed the parades as being the “one” Irish practice.

Why is drinking associated with St. Patrick’s Day?

I know the Irish would like to blame this on the Americans, but this is an Irish thing. They were being called out on it long before they came to America. While it certainly was not necessary to drink on St. Patrick’s Day, the Lenten prohibition against drinking was lifted for the day and drinking in honor of St. Patrick was allowed. Consequently, a lot of people lifted several pots to St. Patrick on the day.  They even had a name for them “pota Pádraig.”

They loved their St. Patrick’s Day tradition so much that in 1727 the author of the first herbal published in Dublin wrote of white meadow clover:

“This Plant is worn by the People in their Hats upon the 17. Day of March yearly, (which is called St. Patrick’s Day.)…However that be, when they wet their Seamar-oge, they often commit  Exceſs in Liquor, which is not a right keeping of a Day to the Lord; Error generally leading to Debauchery.”[3]

The word “wet” is not a misprint here. It refers to a tradition called “wetting the shamrock.”  At the end of your stay at the pub (often after far more than one whiskey) you drop your shamrock in your whiskey. You then raise the drink in a toast to the health of those gathered. After the toast, you take the shamrock out of the drink and toss it over your left shoulder.  This is a tradition my people brought over with them.

From what I understand people in Ireland rarely do this any longer, or maybe it’s a regional thing?  I remember the first time I spent St. Paddy’s Day with an Irish native many years ago, I excitedly did this thinking that he’d want to join in.

He looked at me like I was off my nut. That’s when I realized that no matter how Irish I think I am, I will always be  Irish American.

That’s also when  I began to relax  accept the customs fondly because they are part of my family’s American experience and no less valid because they aren’t “authentic” Irish traditions.

 

Further reading:

Cronin, Mike, & Adair, Daryl. (2002). The wearing of the green:  a history of St. Patrick’s day. London, UK: Routledge.

Ó Súilleabháin, Amhlaoibh. (1979). The diary of Humphrey O’Sullivan, 1827-1837  a translation of Cín lae Amhlaoibh. (de Bhaldraithe, Tomás, Trans.). Dublin, Ireland: Mercier Press.

        
[1] Jocelin, Bishop. (1185). The Life and Acts of Saint Patrick, by Bishop Jocelin. Retrieved from http://catholicsaints.info/the-life-and-acts-of-saint-patrick-by-bishop-jocelin/
[2] Crimmins, J. D. (1902). St. Patrick’s Day: Its Celebration in New York and Other American Places, 1737-1845 ; how the Anniversary was Observed by Representative Organizations, and the Toasts Proposed. New York, NY: J.D. Crimmens.
[3] Threlkeld, C., & Molyneux, T. (1726). Synopsis Stirpium Hibernicarum … Dublin, Ireland: S. Powell. pp. TR.

The Practical Side of Tradition

Some years ago I wrote a brief post on  Imbolg or  Lá Fhéile Bríde to explain my observance of  the  holiday.  That was in the days before I went back to school and figured out that the lesson I was missing from the folklore wasn’t the spirituality. What I wasn’t seeing was how traditional common sense could help me organize my life.

In the same way that folk tales usually offered up some small bit of operant information, despite their moralizing, folk customs (festivals and holidays) usually served some community building function. These customs and rituals also served the equally important role of keeping the agricultural and household tasks on schedule.

The great part about living now, is that we can look through the folklore for the useful stuff and go on with our bad selves without being bogged down by any of the dogma. I generally think people are looking too hard for it, anyway. Peasants didn’t have much time for philosophy and neither do I.  I will leave the deep philosophical dissection to people with more time on their hands.  I have work to do.

Besides, despite what some creative nonfiction writers out there would have you think, we really don’t know much about the esoteric meaning behind the ancient observance of this holiday.

It seems likely that the celebration of these agricultural holidays pre-date Celtic settlement of the country and are remnants of an indigenous cultural practice.[1]  So the Gaels likely assimilated some practices from an earlier culture and the Christians assimilated some from the Gaels.  It is the way of things.

Imbolg was a quarter day.  A day that marked the half way point between the beginning of gam or gaimred and the beginning of sam or samrad. Folk tradition in Ireland holds that February 1st is the first day of “spring” but they did not divide their year into four seasons.  There was the cold half of the year (gaimred) associated with the feminine and the warm half of the year (samrad) associated with the masculine.

There was even a quite practical reason for that.  On Beltaine, the beginning of samrad, the women left the settlement to go tend the herds in the summer pastures, but the men stayed put to work the fields.  That’s also why Beltaine was when temporary marriages ended.

While it is true that we can glean some knowledge of ancient practices, many of the following customs were practiced by Christians who celebrated the day as Lá Fhéile Bríde.  There is no doubt of that.  Truly, my issues with organized religion aside, I have no grievances with St. Bríde.  Any gal who can instantly turn water into ale and then heal the headache of a hangover is solid in my book

Oíche Fhéile Bríde agus Lá Lúnasa was an important feast day for the Gaels.   Bríde herself promised that the weather would improve from this day forward saying:

Gach re lágo maith
Ó’m Iá-sa amach
Agus leath mo lacjeinigh

‘Every second day fine
from my day onwards
and half of my own day’.[2]

The farmers would also watch to see if the hedgehog came out of hibernation on this day. This meant farmers could start preparing their fields to be sown. Villagers could expect that soon the rough seas of winter would begin to abate and a great tide would wash in loads of seaweed to be gathered, cut and spread on their cropland.

In other areas, this wasn’t a certainty and the coming of spring was divined by the portents of the day. A rhyme from the North of Scotland from the 1800’s went:

If Candlemas day be clear and fair,
 half o’ winter is t’ gang and mair;
If Candlemas day be dark and foul,
The half o’ the winter is deen at Yule.”

In other parts of Scotland they watched to see if the hibernating adders left their dens. It was considered bad luck to harm an adder on this day and as they were kind of cold still at this point they weren’t moving very quickly.  They didn’t pose much of a threat. There were several little rhymes written to remind people of this.

La Feill na Bride,
Thig nighean Imhir as a chnoc,
Cha bhean mise do nighean
’S cha dean i mo lochd.’ [Imhir,

The Feast Day of the Bride,
The daughter of Ivor shall come from the knoll,
I will not touch the daughter of Ivor,
Nor shall she harm me.

For both the farmer and the homemaker, it was a time for taking stock of what you had on hand to be sure you had enough to last you until the land provided you with fresh food to harvest.  It was a time for cleaning the home and getting it ready for Bride’s visit as well as making báirín breac and butter as the sheep who were giving birth began producing milk again.

Just as a side note,  I know this this sounds all lovely as if they were living in tune with nature and all of that. In truthy, it was just  good old-fashioned animal husbandry in pastoral communities.  One of the tasks assigned to women in charge of the flocks at Lughnasadh was to wean lambs from their ewes with the express intent of creating a fresh milk supply in February.

(If you are confused as to which holiday this báirín breac. was associated with, the answer is quite likely all of them as serving some sort of company loaf seems to closely mirror the Scottish custom of serving a bannock Marion McNeill called Highland Quarter Cake on the festivals. [3])

In some areas, the sprig of mistletoe, or holly, that had been hung at Yuletide to protect the house from fire and lightening, came down and St. Bridget’s crosses were made to hang in their stead.

(Despite what you have heard, these crosses took many forms and did not all resemble swastikas.  The easiest to make is the three-arm version popular in Co. Donegal, pictured above.)

Sometimes a household would use the materials leftover from making the crosses to make a small bed for the saint in the home.  Sometimes the family would use the leftover straw or rushes to light rush lights in honor of the saint.  Customs varied greatly by region.

There are many Irish healing superstitions associated with the holiday which do likely reach back to the days when Brighid presided over medicine and healers, but we don’t know for certain. While we can’t be quite sure of the origin of these customs, they do have the practical effect of insuring the healing supplies are ready for the year.

The Ribín Bríde was a piece of silk ribbon or a strip of linen that was left outdoors on St. Bridget’s Eve- usually on the windowsill or in a door way.  The saint was said to have blessed the ribbon as she passed by in her travels and it was used as a headache cure subsequently.  The Brat Bríde (Bridget’s Mantle) was a linen garment left out and used similarly throughout the year-especially by women to cure barrenness and to ensure safe childbirth.

The Crios Bríde (St. Bridget’s Belt) was a large ring of straw rope that people would walk through on St. Bridget’s Day to invoke the Saint’s protection from illness.  This custom seemed to be most common in Co. Galway.

Dividing the year by the cross quarters was not unique to Gaelic cultures.  Into late 18th century, the year English divided their years into quarters named for these holidays… Candlemas quarter…midsummer quarter…michaelmas quarter and Christmas quarter.[4]

Candlemas or as the Welsh call it Gŵyl Fair y Canhwyllau  (Mary’s Festival of the Candles) is also an ancient holiday.  Traditionally celebrated on February 2nd is mentioned often as a benchmark date in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles.  The first entry is in 1014 CE.[5]

It was also celebrated in Norway, Sweden and North of Germany. In Germany, it was said that “If the sun shines on Candlemas day, the flax will prosper.” there is some story about Jesus and Mary associated with the feast, the practical aspect of this holiday is that this was the day people would bring their candles to the church to be blessed by the priest.  Which you know, meant they had to be made in time.

It’s also worth noting that Candlemas did not usurp Lá Fhéile Bríde. In Ireland and Scotland, they celebrated both festivals and there is some convoluted story as to Bríde’s association with Mary to account for the proximity of the festivals.

Up until the reign of the Stuarts, Candlemas, rather than Twelfth Night, was the day that all the holiday greenery was to be removed from the home.  In some areas, the holly and ivy were burned in Candlemas Eve fires.  Sound familiar?

This poem, written by Robert Herrick in 1601, documents the long-held superstition that all such greenery should be removed from the home on the eve of Candlemas unless you want to be plagued by goblins.

Ceremony Upon Candlemas Eve
DOWN with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and misletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmas Hall:
That so the superstitious find
No one least branch there left behind:
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected, there (maids, trust to me)
So many goblins you shall see.[6]

Though we can never really know after years of adhering to the custom, I have concluded it seems at least possible that this practice was based on some common sense. The greenery is a fire hazard by this point of the year.  I am cleaning up old dry needles from all sorts of strange places today.  They work really well in tinder boxes.

So, while everyone else is waxing poetic about deeper esoteric underpinnings of the festivals, my actions are informed by traditional folk practicality.

These couple of days are about taking stock of my situation including making an inventory of the gardening closet, freezer, pantry and apothecary.

I will then  spend the next month restocking things that I won’t have time for making once gardening starts like candles, soap and fire starters.

I am literally clearing out the old to make way for the new with tasks like making sure the jars are cleaned out and ready for the next go around.

I am anticipating the return of good weather and beginning to get my seeds around to start transplants.  That’s probably why I have stuff in the ground in early March and am eating fresh lettuce before most people have their garden planted.

Those are just a few of  the ways traditions have helped me move through the year.  Soon I will be offering a much more comprehensive look at how traditions help me move through the year.

[1]  Kevin Danaher, “Irish Folk Tradition and the Celtic Calendar.” In The Celtic Consciousness, ed. Robert O’Driscoll, (New York: George Braziller Inc., 1983), 223.
[2] O’Sullivan, John C. “St Brigid’s Crosses.” Folk Life 11, no. 1 (January 1973): 60–81..
[3] McNeill, Florence Marian. The Scots Kitchen: Its Traditions and Lore, with Old-Time Recipes. 1974 Reprint. Glasgow, Scotland: Blackie & Son, 1929.
[4] Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy: Which Far Exceeds Any Thing of the Kind Yet Published … London, England: W. Strahan, J. and F. Rivington, J. Hinton, 1774.
[5] Ingram, James, trans. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle. London, England: J.M. Dent, 1823.
[6] Herrick, Robert. Works of Robert Herrick. vol II. Alfred Pollard, ed. London, Lawrence & Bullen, 1891. 129.

Beltaine Customs

This is one of the articles from my Beltaine newsletter. Feel free to take a look at the rest of it. Lá Beltaine sona daoibh!

Lá Beltaine or May Day widely celebrated in agricultural cultures. This holiday signified the shift in energy that occurs as spring turns to summer. Flowers were beginning to bloom and outdoor work increased.

When Ireland was populated mostly by pastoral cultures, this was the time they would move their livestock to their summer grazing pastures called buailes (booleys). It was also a time when the fishermen would leave on their long fishing trips. So the eminent departure seemed to call for a sending-off party.

These celebrations always centered around a community bonfire, which stems back to much more ancient traditions, but they had a practical nature. Traditionally, these festivals were the venue for paying rents, hiring summer workers and making contracts for summer grazing land.

Flowers were strewn on the threshold of homes and garlands of flowers were hung –they were even tied to cows tails according to scholar, Estyn Evans.

Young people would carry branches of flowers and walk from home-to-home singing songs which welcomed summer in return for small treats or gifts. This is a sweet little song frequently heard in Waldorf classrooms that speaks to this custom.

Here’s a branch of snowy May,Beltaine
A branch the fairies gave us.
Who would like to dance today
With a branch the fairies gave us?
Dance away, dance away,
Holding high the branch of May.

 

IMG_6112

Many of the rituals surrounding Beltaine involved saining the cattle by various methods. This word which finds its origin in the Old Irish word  sén– referred to “protective charms” of various natures. One of these rituals involved driving the herds over the embers of the dying fires . Frazer reports that men would also leap over the fires and intimates that this was a re-enactment of an older customs involving human sacrifice.

As Beltaine was the beginning of the dairying season, Frazer also reported that the traditional foods at these festivals were caudle –a custard of butter, eggs and milk and “a cake of oatmeal, which is toasted at the embers against a stone.” In other areas of the country a flat bread called farl was served with caudle.

This is not a Celtic custom rather it is a German custom that I learned long ago and incorporated into my May Day celebrations. I believe the first time I had it was at a Waldorf playdate and it was the non-alcoholic version I describe below. In the years before I had sweet woodruff growing, I would use violets and that makes a tasty beverage as well.  So feel free to substitute.

 Mai  BowleIMG_6115
1 bunch sweet woodruff
1 bottle white wine
4 Tbsp. honey
4 Tbsp. Apple Brandy
1 bottle chilled champagne
1 cup sliced strawberries
Violets and woodruff for garnish.

In the evening before you want to serve the Mai Bowle, April 30th, pour wine over sweet woodruff and allow this to steep over night in your punch bowl.
Just before serving you will want to remove the sweet woodruff and mix in the honey, brandy and champagne.  Float the sliced strawberries, woodruff blossoms, and violet blossoms on this mixture.

IMG_6119Non-Alcoholic Alternative

Warm  apple juice and the honey and pour this mixture over the sweet woodruff in the evening. When serving use  sparkling water instead of champagne.