by Hugh Gilmore
My dear old ma cooked about 10 dishes that tickled my taste buds more intensely than anything I’ve called a meal since. I don’t think I’ve ever bragged about my mother’s cooking, but I sure did like it.
I am told we were Irish back then, but I have no idea what we are now. For one thing, no one remembered the words to “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” at my mother’s funeral. And the top three plated items of my childhood were: (1) “galumpties” (an oblong meatball softened with rice, wrapped in a cabbage leaf, the whole held together with wooden toothpicks in a tomato-based sauce and perked up with fresh-squeezed lemons, a polish dish that usually goes by “galumpki” in English. ); (2) spaghetti and meatballs (a common meal, but every guy is imprinted on the way his mother made it – in our case milk-soaked bread was kneaded into the meatballs), and (3) pineapple upside down cake. Which was exactly what the name implies. It was a glazed sweet yellowy cake with canned pineapple slices at the bottom. My mother probably got into heaven after she left us, still hungering for more, on the basis of that cake.
Though we were Irish in ancestry, we ate as amalgamated Americans at the dinner table: macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, hamburgers (not as a sandwich, and never called Salisbury steak), served with boiled potatoes and string beans. Baloney sandwiches when times were lean. (Yes, on white bread. Yes, with mayonnaise.) Stews with chunks of chicken or cheap beef, onions, carrots and potatoes. Fried pork chops. Fried lamb chops (if Dad found his way to work for a whole week). Roasted chicken. Roasted beef. And roasted potatoes with most any dish.
I never had a “baked” potato in my life until I left home. And since we’re speaking honestly here, in frequency “boiled” trumped “baked” often enough to bet on it and make a living. The modern “baked” version of potato, cooked in tinfoil, topped with sour cream and chives, did not arise on my culinary horizon till I had it one afternoon, perhaps at Zaberer’s huge-portioned restaurant on the way home from Wildwood, N.J.
Though my mother’s mother actually came from Ireland, I doubt my mother ever served corned beef and cabbage. Nor whatever it is the American people who call themselves Irish eat when they say they’re eating “traditional” Irish food. Perhaps grandma hadn’t had time to learn to cook since she came to America by herself at about the age of 12 in order to be employed as a domestic servant in a boarding house and send her meager wages back to her family in County Mayo. At 19, she, Mary Devine, married a streetcar conductor named Mike Dooley whose family had left the coal mines down in “Loneyconey” (Lonaconing) Maryland to come north to Philadelphia. They settled in the “Meadows” section of West Philadelphia, down near Tinicum.
According to my mom, on rainy days my grandmother would sometimes sit by the window and look out with tears rolling down her cheeks as she played her John McCormack records. (John McCormack was the most famed of the Irish tenors so popular in those days.) Her family had cried, “Never forget us, Mary,” to her young self as the boat, and her youth, slipped away. Apparently she never did.
But none of these yearnings for the old sod translated into cooking Irish cuisine at the boarding house where grandma had worked as a girl. Nor did my mother ever learn any Irish cooking except for the 100-potato-dishes cookbook. In fact, to this day I’d have to go on Google to tell you what a genuine Irish dinner consists of.
My Jewish friends have their “deli,” the Italians have their momma’s pasta and sauces memorized, Asians can either cook at home from easily found ingredients or go to dozens of food local palaces, but I don’t know anyone who cooks “Irish food” at home. (Again, whatever it is).
The answer for us absorbed Irish-Americans should be to go to any of the many Irish pubs or restaurants found in our big cosmopolitan city, but that might puzzle one all the more. Take a look at the menus of these places (easily found all over the Internet) and you’ll certainly find corned beef and cabbage. Okay, I guess that’s a start. Then there’ll be a number of dishes whose ethnicity derives from cooking the entree in Guinness stout or Irish whiskey and naming it after an Irish city or harbor or bay. Other than that, the menu will consist of your usual Cajun shrimp and creamy dishes with French names. Nothing, I suspect, that my bog-escaping ancestors ate in the sooty gloom of their sod huts.
That’s not a complaint, by the way. It would be nearly impossible for any eatery to stay alive serving only traditional Irish dishes – for which there is little steady demand and virtually no recipes. Irish whiskey or beer, yes. Music, yes. Two world wonders that have consoled many a weary Irish-American soul when he sits down before a roast turkey and yearns for his mother’s galumpties.
Hugh Gilmore is a formerly celebrated author who lives in Chestnut Hill and writes under a dim lamp. Galumpties are also known as stuffed cabbage, dolmakis, prakas and a hundred other names.