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An East Coast Ode to Ireland

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By James Geneau

Partridge Island National Historic Site – Courtesy SJ Waterfront Partnership Corp.

Growing up on the east coast of Canada, family dinners were pretty traditional. Every Sunday, you could be certain that a big family dinner was in order. In the winter months, heartiness was a major theme. Stews, pot pies, and other heavy meat and potatoes-based dishes received good rotation in every house along my street. What I did not realize growing up however was the incredible influence the Irish had on traditional East Coast cuisine. Growing up, these were simply home-cooked meals my mother would prepare with love and devotion. While we were not Irish, we did experience many an Irish-themed dinner, especially during the cold and damp months of February and March.

Beef stew was a classic favorite on a cold and wet March Sunday. It would start around 2:00pm, reasonable rest time after morning service, when a large chunk of stewing beef would start simmering in a pot of about four litres of water. This took about an hour when minced beef would then be browned in a separate pan. The fat would be removed, and sometimes not, and then the minced beef would be added to the pot with the stewing beef along with carrots, onions, potatoes, celery, beef stock, and herbs. It would then simmer for a few hours allowing all the ingredients to release their flavors and mix together into a warm and delicious pot of familiar goodness. Guaranteed, draping the pane of glass from every kitchen window along our street would be the condensation building from a big pot of stew bubbling away inside.

The Irish had a profound impact on the cuisine of Atlantic Canada starting from as early as 1536, when Irish fishermen from Cork travelled to Newfoundland to fish the unspoiled waters. The largest immigration of Irish citizens occurred after the Great Irish Famine in the mid 19th century. During this time, hundreds of thousands of Irish settlers began flooding ports in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. Canada was the destination of the most destitute Irish people as the fare to Canada was much lower than those to the United States, and other nations. As a major timber-exporting colony, New Brunswick became one of the most popular destinations for thousands of Irish refugees fleeing the potato famines during the mid-19th century. The reason for this was the hundreds of vessels sailing between Saint John and England. Many of these ships would stop in Cork. As a result, many Irish refugees took advantage of the trade routes and the abundance of job opportunities in the new colony. Saint John became home to a major quarantine hospital on Partridge Island, today recognized as a National Historic Site for its role in the Irish settlement of Canada. Many immigrants from Ireland were forced to stay here before joining the other settlers in the booming port city. This is where many Irish refugees would ultimately die, however, those settlers who survived would eventually move to marginal agricultural lands in the valleys of the Miramichi, Saint John, and Kennebecasis Rivers.

From this point, the influence of the Irish had begun to take foot in daily culture and the many dishes we currently view as staples when visiting Atlantic Canada began to take shape. Classic Potato Pancakes with Brown Sugar, a popular side for any Friday night fish supper, originated from the Irish dish called Boxty. In Ireland, Boxty was made using finely grated raw potato, mashed potato, flour, baking soda, and buttermilk. Sometimes eggs were used as well to hold the mixture together. They were then fried, much like a traditional pancake, until golden brown. In the early days of the British Empire, Saint John and Halifax were the largest ports on the continent refining raw materials arriving from the Caribbean for shipment to England. Molasses and sugar were major staples, and plentiful in Saint John. As such, they were eventually introduced to Boxty as a sweet topping and became an East Coast classic dish.

Colcannon is another Irish classic to make its way into the kitchens of Atlantic Canada. It was known for being a cheap, day-to-day food and in the early years of settlement, was a very popular and hearty dish for the damp Maritime winters. Colcannon is made from mashed potatoes, cabbage, butter, salt, and pepper and is often compared to the classic English "Bubble and Squeak". Depending on the variation, Colcannon can also contain milk or cream along with seasonal leeks, onions, chives, and garlic. Boiled ham or bacon was used depending on the availability and the financial resources of the settler family. Today, a variation of Colcannon can still be found cooking away on a stove top in rural communities in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Here, the dish includes potatoes, milk, butter, diced carrots and turnips mashed together and served during large holiday meals such as Christmas, and New Years.

One dish my grandmother would love to make on cold afternoons in January was a concoction she called Creamed Bread. The dish was so simple to make and would warm even the coldest of children after a day of making snow forts and tobogganing. In a pot of bubbling full-fat milk, she would add cubes of homemade white bread, sugar, cinnamon, and apple-spice. The end result was a thick pudding of creamy stickiness that was perfect with a mug of cocoa. What I did not realize at the time was that this was actually an Irish dessert-like dish called "Goody", most likely incorporated into her own grandmother's kitchen a hundred years earlier. The name or the origin of the dish wasn't important, it was the wonderful feeling of warmth and happiness you felt afterwards that mattered.

And so, looking forward to another damp March and the revelling to be had during St. Patrick's Day, I have to sit back and thank the influence the Irish had on my childhood. We didn't grow up Irish, but the dishes they brought to Atlantic Canada many years ago were a major part of my upbringing and certainly a part of several memorable moments with my family. Thank you dear Irish settlers and your influence on my childhood. Now where is that pint of Guinness I asked for?


Thanks James, I really enjoyed this article! I'm from St. John's (now living in Toronto) and reading it brings me back to Sunday dinners of potatos & veggies. Very much an Atlantic Canadian thing that you certainly don't see here in the city.
Post Reply By Alison in TORONTO on 3/12/2009 11:47:16 AM

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