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Cook-In-Residence

Sunday, February 20, 2011 | Posted by Nerissa Cooney

Cook-In-Residence, a collaboration between Golden Arrows and Lucia Jazayeri, and an investigation into the world of Irish Soda Bread. Lucia went to work researching and baking piles of Irish soda bread, which were sold in a one-day store for one dollar a piece. 66 morsels were scooped up by happy customers. There were 3 kinds of soda bread made: Traditional Brown / Yellow Cornmeal / American Style. Want to know what makes them different and how the variations came to be? We did, and so began the delve into soda bread's history, ingredients and recipes.

Soda / A Chemical—Taste that? Crumble through that chewy crumble and notice the taste of something clean, powdery, and not entirely natural. That taste is soda, but not the Dr. Pepper kind. It's a sodium bicarbonate, the same baking soda you mix with vinegar to make a volcano for a science fair. When soda meets an acid like buttermilk, air bubbles form, and when those bubbles rise within a floury dough, you get bread.

Traditional Brown / A Weak Wheat—Yeast is the other way to make air bubbles rise, but yeast bread didn't work in Ireland because the local wheat grown under the temperate climates of the island was too "soft," too weak on gluten, to stand up to the demands of yeast. But this weak wheat happened to be the perfect match to baking soda. Irish Brown Bread, a whole wheat bread, was formed into a loaf, marked with a cross, and cooked in a clay pot over an open fire.

Yellow Cornmeal / A Bad Potato—In early centuries, Irish people ate a varied diet including seaweed, salmon, bacon, and wheat bread. But in 1647, Oliver Cromwell's army invaded Ireland on behalf of the English Parliament. It's not widely know, but one of the soldiers that day was a single Peruvian potato. That potato's descendants would come to the forefront as the main source of (cheap, easy to grow) calories for the tenement farmers who used most of their fields to grow food for export to England and the world. When the famine hit and potatoes rotted in the earth, the fields were awash with edible grain, all destined for elsewhere. In a strange twist of fate, yellow corn was sent to Ireland from America to try and assuage the famine. This was Yellow Soda Bread.

American Style / St. Patty's Day—When Irish immigrants (like Nellie's ancestors) came to the U.S., they took with them no food traditions. Unlike immigrants like Jews, Italian, and Germans, who recreated the tomato sauces, beef stews, and gefilte fish of their home countries, for Irish immigrants, food was a sad reminder of the potato that had killed their family members and forced them to leave home. Irish immigrants—mostly women who found jobs as servants—were stigmatized as being lazy, bad cooks. A lot has changed. How we celebrate St. Patrick's day with a parade in Southie, and with food now named proudly as Irish, like the American version of Irish soda bread, which contains all the bounty of a rich country: raisins, sugar, caraway seeds, eggs, and butter. It's not traditional and it's not eaten in Ireland.

Oh, and way we get St. Patrick's Day off in Suffolk County? St. Patrick's Day, March 17, 1776, was the day the yearlong British siege of the city of Boston ended. Washington's first victory of the Revolutionary War, at Dorchester Heights, Boston.

* Special thanks to our guest librarian, Elizabeth Bevington-Seawright, who helped us find old cookbooks at the Schlessinger Library.

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