Early Lessons from an Irish Kitchen

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People often ask me how I fell in love with cooking. I followed my nose, with my heart and stomach not far behind. It was the magical late autumn of 1969.

I’ve always been drawn to the heat of the kitchen.  It was where all the action was when Irish people got together to drink and eat like we did back then.  For me, the kitchen was the place to be if you wanted to hear the stories of the olden days from the elders that were still around. The food was just the starting point.

The early lessons I learned in Grandma’s kitchen were among the most important I’ve ever learned. When she put together a Sunday shindig for the whole gang, her butcher said a prayer of thanks.

In the Brooklyn of the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, people liked getting together and celebrating.  In our living rooms, basements and parlors, our grandparents, uncles and aunts told stories of this party or that dance where someone did something outrageous. All the older folks laughed. It was all funny and dressed up for public consumption. It all seemed so harmless.

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The Jets game played on the big Zenith console in the large living room.  Uncles and friends moaned or cheered with each play. Nuts and chips disappearing from bowls on the TV table. Tin beer cans of Rheingold clanked a long Namath to Maynard touchdown pass that tied the game. Woohoo.

Our whole family was there along with some of our cousins and sorta’ cousins. The nearly dozen younger kids played safely on the stoop and street in front of the brick row houses. Mom and a few of the other young mothers smoked on the top steps and chatted. Most of the men gathered around the television watching football. I drifted toward the kitchen to see what was going on.

Grandma Duffy had a big Sunday roast beef going in the oven and she was busy at the aqua-colored Formica counter prepping sides.

The kitchen casement windows steamed up fogging the glass on a sunny, cold early December afternoon. Her lace curtains dewy with condensation but spray starch stiff and Clorox white clean.

I was always a restless and curious boy. And I was usually hungry. The aroma of the beef and roasting carrots was rich and drew me to the kitchen. Grandma was chopping fresh herbs on the counter. Aunt Peggy helping by peeling spuds for the mash.  She tells me she adds sour cream and fresh chives that she grew in her backyard during the summer.

I asked Grandma if I could help.  She smiled and waved me towards the radiating heat of the oven.

“Respect the heat. If you do, it will be the most honest relationship you will ever have in your long life.”

She opened the oven briefly and a let strong wave of heat licked out at us…I was impressed.

“Heat will do the same thing every time. It will burn you. No shortcuts, no wet pot holders, and no flimsy implements.  Same way every time.  Be mindful.”

I was.  The dragon’s breath of the 450 degree oven made a clear impression on me. I saw what it did to 15 pounds of round roast beef, charring the succulent layer of fat that coated the giant hunk of meat. There were plenty of folks who were fans of the burnt ends and crispy bits.

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The Jets beat the Bills or Dolphins on a late field goal and marched on towards their only Superbowl victory that coming January. Combined with the Mets recent World Series win still fresh in our hopeful thoughts, we were indeed breathing rare air.

After the game ended, the happy lads gathered around the big table, with all the leaves inserted for maximum eating space.  That was the cue for Granma to start bringing out heaping plates of mashed potatoes, roasted carrots with butter and honey and a pile of biscuits. Chairs were arranged to accommodate the big group.

I loved how the food brought everyone together for a half hour, before everyone went back to their respective cliques. Old and young, men and women all passing plates in a synchronized dance. Once everyone was situated we took hands and thanked the Lord for our bounty.

The bonds that I recall with those people so many years later were formed at that big Macy’s lay-away oak dining room table. Then, the chatting resumed full tilt as plates of food were passed about.  Everyone was sitting together and happy, eating like royalty and sharing real laughs.

Well-done was the order of the day for most steaks back then, but roast beef needed to have a pink interior core. That’s when I’d line up for a few slices, when I saw the blood.  A crispy coating of fat on my beef, a ladleful of the earthy brown mushroom gravy, a fresh buttermilk biscuit tick with creamy Irish butter, a few crispy carrots and a glass of milk or an apple juice and I was as happy as a clam.

Soon after eating large amounts of food, men would drift out to the front porch with their scented tobacco pipes to talk about the war and Nixon (that bastard). Democratic ward bosses, union workers, cops, clerks and drunks alike, they all hated Nixon.

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At six years old, I was tired of hearing about Vietnam.  The six o’clock news was enough. I gravitated toward the kitchen once the dishes were cleared to hear what they were all talking about.

The kitchen radio played Do-Wop oldies from the Fifties and someone always tried to sing along to the crooners.  Some jokingly bad, but often enough someone would step up and knock one out of the park.  People would come in from the front room to see who owned that fine voice.

 

Sometimes, I’d have to completely re-evaluate a person when I witnessed them demonstrate their unseen gift and art appeared before our very eyes. You just never knew they had it in them.

Willie Duffy, Grandpa on my mother’s side was a kind, dapper quiet drinker. His silver flask would appear and disappear, flashing in the dying sunlight to steel him. Everyone looked away. It seemed right and a little noble.

Grandpa would summon up an old rebel Fenian tune and sing with true, pure God-given tenor.

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He sang aching ballads that brought alive the clear streams, the green rolling hills, the winding roads and smiling faces of his beloved Ireland. He would follow that with either “Danny Boy” or “Whiskey in the Jar”.  Maybe after that he would lead a rousing Republican hymn to get the blood up, often enough brilliantly leading to “The Fields of Athenry”.

After a few songs he would usually get sleepy and Uncle John and another of the men would lead him up to bed. He would be snoring like the rumble of a slow moving freight train within minutes. This was usually the beginning of the end of the long day.

The kitchen held the last embers of the party as people began leaving.  Grandma sent them off with care packages of her beef enough for their lunch sandwiches for the next couple of days. My Mother would call out for us to wrap it up. Brothers and sisters gathered for departure, each kissing Grandma goodnight.

Take people and good food, apply warmth.  Spice to taste. Add a spoonful of butter and a dollop of honey. Bake for one hour at 350. Baste often. Let cool before serving.  Turn off oven.

I remember the heat of the kitchen.  I remember the warmth of the people.  I remember how the food brought us all together if only for a little while. I knew that I wanted to always be in the kitchen.

Slainte.

 

So This is Your Ocean

urban angler

While Grandma sparked my love of cooking, Grandpa Willie Duffy lead me to my another great passion- the ocean.

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Jim fishing at dusk.

I saw Brighton Beach for the first time on a gray early spring Saturday. Grandpa picked me up and we walked the few blocks to the subway through the waking neighborhood.

The B train runs above ground from Prospect Park to the ocean on Brooklyn’s south shore, passing big brick apartment buildings and stores at first.  That scenery soon gave way to the lush green of the mostly quiet, colorful back yards of Midwood.  Occasionally, you’d catch a second of someone’s life as they hung laundry or smoked a quiet cigar on their porch.

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On a good day you might catch a whiff of ocean air as the doors opened at Kings Highway and your pulse might quicken a little. Along the last stretch of track as the train passes through Sheepshead Bay, weeping willows and elm trees reach across the tracks welcoming you towards the ocean.

We got off the train at the corners of Brighton Sixth Street and Brighton Beach Avenue, descending the stairs under the massive iron elevated structure. The smells of kosher hot dogs and briny sauerkraut greeted us into this new world. The gruff vendors looked as if they were from another time and many spoke in Russian accents as thick as the brisket they sliced.

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 Grandpa bought us a couple of dogs and got me a glass bottle of Coke and we walked up the short block towards the boardwalk enjoying each bite.

The gritty boardwalk stretched for miles with some broken areas fenced off.  I saw the colorful rides of Coney Island, still dormant this early in the season, twinkling in the near distance. The gray ocean was nearly flat and only a few fishing boats could be seen.

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We walked across the sand towards the gentle surf. Strolling along the shore of the chilly Atlantic as it lapped gently onto Brighton Beach, Grandpa stopped and pointed out to the watery horizon.

“So this is your ocean. I’ve sailed across it and it is quite big. It is yours to play in, eat from and travel across. Treat her well and with respect, because if you get on her bad side, God help ya’.”

A lazy ray of sun poked through and danced on the surface bringing out greens and blues that were not there seconds before.

He spoke of the ocean like a living thing.  I understood the connection and the responsibility that came with it. I’ve never looked at the ocean the same way since.

~

Though we lived city lives on the hard concrete sidewalks and black tar streets of Brooklyn, we had clean, accessible beaches that opened into the vast blue ocean just a subway token away. We could get to the beach or the bay in half an hour on one train from our Flatbush neighborhood.

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Going down to the sea was always a special treat- good, clean, cheap fun with exotic new foods to be tasted. There were oysters on the half shell chilled on crushed ice in the window of Randazzo’s on Sheepshead Bay, the aroma of fried clams floating in the summer air from a shack on the Coney Island boardwalk and rows upon of Nathan’s tube steaks.

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The salt air just made everything better.  What was it about the ocean that just made everything seem so much better?

I always wondered what was going on under the water.  From the beach I could see so much life, but I knew that there was so much more lurking in the depths of The Atlantic.

Around the ages of 8 or 9, we would have these big group neighborhood trips to the beach on summer weekends.   Three or four families with tons of kids from our Flatbush, Brooklyn neighborhood would trudge a days-worth of food and supplies to the Newkirk Avenue D train to Manhattan Beach. We walked from the subway in a colorful, ragged line, hauling our gear across the skinny wooden Sheepshead Bay footbridge to this secluded gem of a beach. A section to the left had grills for people to use if you got there early enough to claim one.

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The Brooklyn of the early 1970’s was a great place. Colorful Latin music would blare from big old school boom boxes (some with 8-track players!).  The smell of sausage and peppers, marinated chicken and juicy burgers cooking on a grill still brings me back to that special golden era.

Met games competed with the Yankees for radio supremacy in another corner. A loud group of domino players had there spot. Men with cigars played card games in the shady spot furthest to the left.

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The mothers would drink whiskey sours or daquiris from pitchers as they sat around in their beach chairs, listening to music and smoking cigarettes.

Some fathers would head out to the jetty with their fishing rods, smelly bait and their Rhiengold and Schaefer beers in brown paper bags.

I watched snapper bluefish chase baitfish into the shallows for slaughter.  Blue crabs danced sideways close to the shore and could give you a stinging bite if you did not display respect for their pocket-sized fury.  I began to look deeper into the water and discovered something new each time.

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Five lb Fluke on Fire Island.
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Sea Robin
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Skate
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Crab feast.

I remember watching the men cast from the jetty at south end of Manhattan Beach.  Their long surf rods gave them the power to put their bunker chucks or squid out beyond the breakers where the big fish fed.

manhattan beach 70s

It could be quiet for long periods. All of a sudden one of the men fishing up on the jetty would reel in one of these big fish. A voracious bluefish, a meaty fluke or a mighty striper could be caught there.  All the kids would run over to see the spectacle. I couldn’t imagine that fish like these lived in our waters.  I knew I wanted to know more.

The Beatles “Yellow Submarine” was a hit when I was a bicycling Brooklyn boy.  I would sing it as I biked along Ocean Avenue, all the way out to Sheepshead Bay just to watch the boats come home with fish.  I started to take notes.

My brother Kevin and I would save all our money all winter to get aunt Re-Re to take us down to the Coney Island to ride the bumper cars.  Rides on the Cyclone were almost like flying.

There were great old Brooklyn times when my aunt Marie used to take us down to the Sheepshead Bay in her big red Buick to buy “L-O-B-S-T-E-R” (as she would spell-out to my Mom).  I had an 8th grade reading level in the second grade, so they weren’t fooling me.

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We would go to Nick’s where there was a crazy room full of bathtubs, tiered up the walls.  My brother Kevin and I used to marvel at the countless lobsters.  There were thousands of all sizes.  There was a freakishly large one all by himself in a tank by the cash register.  I kind of felt sorry for him.  No room to roam in there.

The crisp salty air and the sound of the ocean made Nathan’s hot dogs, fried clams and frog legs (!) taste that much better.

Sometimes we would take family trips to eastern Long Island in the summer.  As a young boy running along the beaches of Hampton Bays, a new world was opening to me, far different that the hard streets off Flatbush Avenue.

There are old photos of my young grandparents, country immigrants from Ireland, smiling and dancing with friends at the seashore.  I’ve seen pictures of my young mother on the beach in a place they still call The Hamptons that no longer exists.

Except down by the sea.

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sham

 

 

Hungry man.☘️ Tiny kitchen.🍽 Big city.🗽

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Hi. My name is Jim Shaffer.  I’m  an Irish American, native New Yorker and creative home cook. I know my way around NYC and I have a sense of adventure that has lead me to nearly every neighborhood of the five boroughs and beyond in search of authentic delicacies and culinary delights.

ErinGoScratch strives to open new worlds of flavor by taking you on a journey to amazing, fresh, authentic ingredients. I can show you how to translate these found treasures into delicious restaurant quality dishes in any kitchen.

I have been to Greenpoint for fresh Pierogies, Astoria for Octopus for grilling, Brighton Beach for the beets to make borscht, Staten Island salumerias to make killer antipasta, I buy fish at all three of NYC’s Chinatowns and both Koreatowns and I take the 6 train Murray Hill for curry (if I’m in a hurry). And, if we get a little lost along the way I will make sure we have a laugh while we sort it all out.

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I also love to fish the waters around the New York/New Jersey coast. What I catch, I cook, and that is pretty satisfying. I feel I must honor the fish by cooking it to the best of my ability. It also adds a little Zen spice to any fish dish.

I wrote the treatment and served as host for “Adventures of the Urban Angler” (produced by Australia’s Handmade Productions) which was a finalist in 2008’s Discovery Channel’s “Ignite Australia ” competition as “Fish and Trips”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gyBJY-iaXTE

I co-wrote and co-starred in Benchmark Film’s 2007’s short film “Banged Up” which was featured in Anthology Film Archives New FilmMakers series. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nL7nBmkfeuA

I am proud to say that I had a bit part in Martin Scorcese’s 2008 Rolling Stones documentary “Shine a Light”.

I have been writing for most of my life and have been published in The Fire Island Tide, The Irish Emigrant, Shore11.org, Edible Bronx magazine and I have created original content for a number of other websites.

So prepare your taste buds, load up your Metrocard and let’s go see what we can find

J.K.S. 6/20/17

www.eringoscratch.com

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