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Every year, I look forward to St. Patrick's Day dinner at my local Catholic church, St. Mary's, and yet I'm pretty convinced my love of this annual celebration has almost nothing do with the meal itself. For me, it's about celebrating community, history and family long left behind, but never forgotten.
I grew up in a typical Irish-Catholic household in New England, where my father joyfully identified with his Irish ancestry and my mother, even more Irish than he, was called out for the touch of Italian in her heritage. We were patrons of the local parish, lived across the street from the Kilkennys and worshipped the Boston Celtics of the 1980s. When St. Patrick's Day rolled around, often during Lent, when we kids had given up candy (again) there was a day off of the sacrificing, lots of celebrating and always corned beef and cabbage for the masses.
Everyone seems to be surprised that St. Mary's has served roast pork and roast beef for about 130 years and not corned beef, which is what Americans, including my own family, traditionally serve on St. Patrick's Day. The reality is, Irish don't really eat corned beef, a fact my father still refuses to accept.
Francis Lam wrote on Salon, "Corned beef was made popular in New York bars at lunchtime. The bars offered a 'free lunch' to the Irish construction workers who were building NYC in the early part of the 20th century. But there's no such thing as a free lunch. You had to buy a couple of beers or shots of whiskey to get that free lunch. And that's how corned beef became known as an 'Irish' food."
No matter what the true roots, any meal gathered around the table on St. Patrick's Day holds meaning for me. Most years at St. Mary's we sit next to those we don't know at the table, or they might be visitors looking for an affordable meal and authentic scene of locals just getting to know one another. We sit down, wait for the delivery of pork, beef or a "combo." We slap on the mashed potatoes and slaw, and eat too much stale bread. The meal itself reminds me a lot of home. It's warm, it's plentiful and made with joy.
If the St. Patrick's Day dinner at St. Mary's was to go away tomorrow, I might just go with it. When you can't break bread or drink an iron-rich Guinness with friends, old or new, what's a community got left?