Oct 31, 2009

A More Authentic Hallow's Eve Experience In 4 Easy Steps!

Neighbors blow away real leaves and decorate their doorways with fake leaves; kids are yellow-bused off to pristine pumpkin patches; meanies turn their lights off so kids won't ring their bells; greenies shake their heads at plastic costumes (while kids shake their heads back at their sugar-free "treats"), and Martha-mummies attack any blank surface with orange frosting and glitter guns. Yes, it's Halloween, but it looks nothing like the Halloween I'd like to be celebrating.
Call it recession backlash, nostalgic flashbacks, or just plain old age, but I'm longing for a less-plastic and more authentic Halloween experience this year. If you’re feeling the same, here are four easy ways to scare up a little authenticity this (or maybe, next) Halloween:

1. Light the fires
All-night bonfires have long been an integral part of the Samhain end-of-harvest festival celebration, and they played a huge part in my childhood Halloweens. In my village (sidenote: rural Ireland—like rural Africa—has villages but the medicine man is known as a bartender in ours), kids gathered discarded tires, furniture, and anything flammable for weeks leading up to Halloween, and then everyone gathered together to reach and roar as the flames reached and roared out into the dark skies. I loved that it was fire, big and fierce and exciting and angry, and that young and old gathered together around it. I was also aware that it acted as a guiding light to the souls of our dear departed, who were free on this night to return to visit with us. I didn't love the idea of bringing our lonely ghost-relatives up to date on Coronation Street, so I focused on the belief that the flames also acted as a deterrent to evil-meaning spirits.

I can't really light a bonfire in my Brooklyn backyard, but I could get a fire-pit to ward off wayward spirits...

2. Swing some apples

Apples don't rate highly in my food pyramid most days, never mind actually making it out of the fruitbowl on Halloween (unless they're coated in caramel), but they used to be a big part of our Halloween games as kids. We hung apples on string from a height, and then, with hands tied behind our backs, we had to try to take a bite out of a swinging apple. Harder than it sounds! We also put apples in big bowls of cold water, and again with hands tied behind our backs, had to bob to try and get a bite. The apple peel game was played mostly by teenagers or unmarried women; to predict the initials of a future spouse or true love, an apple had to be peeled in one continuous unbroken peel, and when the peel was tossed over her shoulder it would fall in the
shape of the initial of her true love. For some reason it always spelled out "Gerard Butler" for me...

3. Tell a tall tale
Photo of Eddie Lenihan by Tony Murphy

When looking for authentic Irish tales of fairies (as opposed to fairytales), historical tales, devil stories, accounts of saints, of monsters, ogres, giants, ghosts and more, I always turn to Ireland's most precious resource, folklorist and seanchaí, Eddie Lenihan. Lenihan's a living database, a master storyteller, and a prolific writer. He has a wild head of hair, a head filled with wild and lively stories, and a mission to preserve and carry on the ancient tradition of storytelling. I turned to him this week for a little meat and character to add to my Halloween brew. In his The Devil is an Irishman collection, I found the story of "Jacko o'the Lantern," about Clare farmer Jack Murt who was granted three wishes by a spectral figure in a graveyard, and then entered into a decades-long battle of wits with the Devil. He outsmarted the Devil several times but was a little too smart for his own good, and for a finish found himself trapped in a half-existence, just a ghostly light wandering the backroads of Clare and Ireland. It's not your typical spooky story but it's a refreshing break from the gorey Halloween movies on TV, and it's full of Irish superstition, character, and humor.
Note: you can hear Eddie Lenihan tell a story over on his site.

4. Attack a brack
I've been working at a decent barm brack for a few weeks, struggling with mushy middles and a mushy conscience, too, but I'm so glad now that I have a traditional barm brack for Halloween. It's an easy bread to bake, and when you add in the pea, the coin, the ring, the cloth, and the stick—all wrapped in pieces of parchment paper and tucked into the loaf before baking—it makes for some fun eating. Kids of all ages enjoy getting a slice of fruity bread along with a slice of their future.

Fire, apples, stories, and brack; suddenly it looks—and feels—like Oíche Shamhna!

Oct 28, 2009

A Barm Brack Confession

Santa brought me an accordion one year. I was young, but old enough to realize that an accordion was a big-girl gift. Unfortunately, I wasn't big-girl enough to realize that I shouldn't take my accordion apart. Now, this would be a great story if I had grown up to be Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, but, well, I didn't. When I took the screwdriver to my accordion, it wasn't because I was curious, I was bored. I didn't want to know how things worked so I could invent things myself—there just wasn't anything on telly that day.

My first lie (that's a lie, too)
My mother had me enrolled in accordion classes in Clarecastle Hall—classes she could no more afford than that fancy accordion and its fancy accordion case. I thought about telling my mother that my older brother had used the dryer for one pair of jeans while she was at work and by-the-way-I-had-broken-my-accordion, or that I had dismantled my accordion in a fit of scientific curiosity, but I knew she'd see through me. She'd ask me to stick out my tongue to see if I was lying, and if she saw a black spot, I'd see the wooden spoon, or the hurley, or worse—the brush.
So I did what any decent downstanding kid would do; I lied.

I got ten-out-of-ten in spellings, but I was a monster
Every week I tottered off up the road to class with my fancy accordion case and my mother waved to me from the door, proud as punch. At class, I stashed my case in the bathroom and told my teacher I'd left my accordion at my grandmother's house. As I grew better at telling tales, I also grew horns on my head and knots in my stomach. I would bang away on the nuts, bolts, and keys up in my room so that my mother thought I was just a slow learner—but at least I was trying, and then at class I'd watch other kids (who probably had satellite TV so they didn't have to break shit for kicks) bang away on their accordions in class.

Stress is a recent condition in Ireland; In my day it was misdiagnosed as gout or Mad Cow's Disease
I got sick. The doctor came out to the house and couldn't figure out what in the name of God was ailing me. They tried everything—asprin, fresh air, Lucozade—but I was in bad shape. My poor mother was very worried; my grandmother did rounds of the well. One day, as my mother sat at my bedside lighting candles, I confessed; I broke my accordion.
It was like the weight of the world was lifted off my evil shoulders. I cried and cried and apologized and cried some more, and seeing that my mother felt awful that I'd made myself sick with worry (and deceit), I asked for a pair of Dock Martins.

The monster bakes
I've been sick again. All week I've been worrying that the barm brack cake I have been attempting to perfect is not authentic. I've been sick to death with worry (and bingeing on last week's barm brack).
This morning, as I prepared to bake my final and perfect barm brack, I cracked.
I'm cheating! It's not authentic! A barm brack is supposed to be a yeasted bread! I need new shoes!
I immediately decided to bake an authentic yeast-driven barm brack. Then I remembered that yeasted breads take FOREVER to rise and ten minutes to knead and I don't have forever-and-ten-minutes before Halloween.
I decided to buy a bread machine. I spent an hour reading bread-machine reviews. Would we consume two pounds of bread a day? Did I want a power-failure backup? I spent another hour doing the math. Then I read bread-machine cookbook reviews. Maybe I should buy organic flour, too? I decided to pay for overnight shipping. I could bake Barm bracks for everyone I know before Halloween. I'd even design clever tags to explain the tokens baked inside.

I ditched my virtual cart and ran.
My kids hate yeast—think they might even be allergic to it. Someone might die if I use yeast. And I'm sure it's bad for the environment!
I bailed on my bread machine and on a yeasted brack.

So, here I am. Don't judge me people. I will bake a barm brack today, and maybe it won't fully rise to the occasion, but it'll be an honest loaf of bread.

Oct 27, 2009

Swell New Music From The Swell Season

The Swell Season just released a new album, Strict Joy today. Okay, let me back up a bit so you can fully grasp just how swell this news is: The Swell Season is Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova's band, and Strict Joy is their follow-up to Once.
, a simple little movie about two people meeting and falling in love on the streets of Dublin, became an indie phenomenon in 2007, as audiences everywhere responded to the unassuming charm of the two leads, Glen and Marketa, and the beautiful music they made together.
If you haven't seen Once yet, or heard its soundtrack, light a fire under your arse fast and get it Here! (or I guess you could wait to see the Broadway musical version in early 2010).
I won't be waiting for the Broadway musical of Strict Joy; I'm downloading it right now!

On a sidenote, I have my own Once story. Once upon a time I was practically married to Glen Hansard. Okay, not exactly married, but close; a young Glen used to busk outside The Cash shop in my hometown of Ennis, and my friends and I used to stand across the street in our rolled-up-and-buttoned-down school uniforms to appreciate his efforts. Glen had a mad head of hair at the time (like that sported in his role in The Commitments), and I was sporting my own mop of cupid-blocking hair, so we never made eye contact...and never got married. You can tell from his music that the poor fella never quite got over never getting into me.

Strict Joy on Amazon
Tour Dates: TheSwellSeason.com
Romance Fades, Partnership Endures, The New York Times, Oct. 18, 2009

Oct 26, 2009

Lisa Hannigan

A friend invited me to see David Gray at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night. It was kind of a last minute thing, so I hadn't given much thought to who would be opening for him, and so was surprised and delighted to find Lisa Hannigan playing when we got to our seats.
If you haven't heard of Lisa Hannigan, she's an amazingly talented Irish female vocalist, known best for accompanying her countryman, Damien Rice, for seven years, and then being abruptly fired as the band was about to go onstage at a gig in Germany. Hannigan was no doubt reared on a healthy dose of "not one door closes but another opens" philosophy, because she immediately set to work on her own songs and album.

The result is Sea Sew, a poetic, charming, and quirky album, from a singer and songwriter with a considerable craft (she wrote and performed all of the album's songs and then knit and sewed the cover and liner notes herself, too!)

Handsewn liner notes by Lisa Hannigan

In a recent interview on NPR, Hannigan said of the album's sound:
"When we started recording, I wanted it to sound like rusty custard...Well, I wouldn't recommend eating it — it sounds quite dangerous. But I wanted that sort of rusty, creaky sound — and just that warm-and-creaminess as well."
I've been thoroughly enjoying this warm custardy album for a while now at home, but
I found out Saturday night that it does not quite capture the raw beauty of Hannigan's voice live. I'd highly recommend seeing her live. I couldn't find any video from Saturday night's show, but you can get a good feel for the charming Hannigan live from this clip, filmed earlier this year in Toronto:

Lisa's album: Sea Sew
Lisa's website: lisahannigan.ie

Oct 24, 2009

Irish Barm Brack: Take 2!

When I tell people that Halloween is a more Irish Holiday than St. Patrick's Day, they usually look at me with that same blank stare as when I say that Ireland has it's own language. Halloween (Oíche Shamhna), has its roots in the Celtic festival of Samhain, and this year I'm hoping to bake up a more authentic Irish Oíche Shamhna celebration with a little divine–and divining–barm brack, a.k.a. barmbrack, or báirín breac.
The barm brack is a light fruitcake, into which
a pea, a stick, a piece of cloth, a small coin, and a ring are placed before baking. Each item, when received in the slice, carries a meaning to the person concerned: if you get the pea, you won't marry that year; get the stick, and you'll have an unhappy marriage or continually be in disputes (or you can interpret the stick as a walking stick which suggests you will travel far); if you get the cloth or rag, you will have bad luck or be poor; get the coin, and you enjoy good fortune or be rich, and if you get the ring, you will be wed within the year. I remember eating my way through a loaf of barm brack to find the ring, so that I could relax in the knowledge that I'd be wed within the year.

I was only six years old.

Note: I did not include my lucky tokens in this second attempt; they will be included–wrapped in parchment paper–in my third and final baking, because, third time's a charm!

1 1/2 cups golden sultanas and raisins (add candied citron if you like)
1 cup brewed black tea (warm)
1 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 tsp baking powder

1. Combine sultanas and raisins in a teapot with tea and brown sugar, and refrigerate overnight.
2. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

3. Pour the raisin and tea mixture into a bowl; add lightly beaten egg and then the flour and baking powder.
4. Mix gently so that you don't burst open those juicy raisins and sultanas.
5. Pour mixture into a greased pan. If you're adding charms, wrap them in parchment paper, and distribute them evenly in your pan now, tucking them into the mixture. Bake for about one hour and a half. Tip: Check your brack at one hour; if it seems to be browning too fast, tent it loosely with aluminum foil. Do not take it out of oven early!
6. Leave it to cool in pan for (a painful) thirty minutes.

7. Sing this Irish song to the tune of Frère Jacques while you cross your fingers, toes, eyes, and knees hoping the inside of your bread is done (and if so, that you get the coin and ring!):
Oíche Shamhna, Oíche Shamhna,
báirín breac, báirín breac,
úlla agus cnónna, úlla agus cnónna,
báirin breac, báirín breac.

8. Butter and eat. Make sure you don't choke on a prediction!

Oct 23, 2009

Good Mood Food:
Get Yer Gloves On Naked Chef!

It seems that everyone around me is on some kind of a special diet; everything from low-fat, low-sodium, organic, and vegetarian, to soy, sugar-conscious, gluten-free, and dairy-free. I've been feeling a bit boring with my I'll-eat-anything-you-land-in-front-of-me diet so I've decided to make a change; from now on, I will only eat food that puts me in a good mood.
Luckily, I just came across The Good Mood Food Blog, written by Irish twenty-something, Donal Skehan. Donal started his food blog in 2007, when he moved into his first apartment, as a way of keeping track of the meals he was cooking. He documented his kitchen adventures, posted them online, and before long, had a loyal following and a book deal (and surely, the reality show will soon follow).
Mr. Skehan is a handy photographer and a dab hand in the kitchen, favoring simple, delicious, healthy, home-cooked food, served with a friendly voice:

"Unfortunately thanks to my hangover a few weeks ago, after one or two many Mojito's, it was not a pleasant experience pouring the rum into this recipe at 8am yesterday... I'm glad I did, because this dish was packed with really tasty flavors. I served the breasts with couscous, but it would also go really nicely with a crisp green salad." –D.S.
"Even my just about overripe Avocado, is one of the true underrated super foods- It's packed with essential fatty acids, Vitamin K and antioxidants- it also makes a lovely face mask! (But you didn't hear that from me...) Radish's are often linked to aiding digestive problems and are beneficial for the teeth and gum's- So overall this salad is packed with nutrition and is a perfect Good Mood Food recipe! "–D.S.

"OK I KNOW I KNOW THIS IS MEANT TO BE A HEALTHY BLOG! But this recipe is not my fault, I made it to cheer someone up! I could play on that whole chocolate is good for you crap but realistically, there are no health benefits to this at all. They do taste great and sure your grand once you eat things like this in moderation!" –D.S.

It must also be addressed that he is a bit of a droolworthy dish himself!
Hugh Grant + Jamie Oliver + dash of Colin Farrel
+ boy next door + custard = Donal Skehan

He looks good, he cooks good, and oh–did I mention he's a pop star? Yep, his band, Industry, is cooking these days, too. This is their latest video, In Your Arms, and I guess it doesn't hurt that he can whip up some tortured-lover faces as well as some tasty-looking mini beef and mushroom pies.

I've always said that the way to a woman’s heart is through her stomach...

His blog: GoodMoodFoodBlog
His book: Good Mood Food Book
His band: Industry

Oct 22, 2009

Spotlight: Janey Clothing

Dubliner Jane Geraghty, of Janey Clothing, designs and makes simple and flattering pieces for the non-plain Janes among us. Her designs are very wearable, handmade to order, and affordable, too. I'm especially loving her boatneck jersey-and-silk tees; they're the perfect balance of style, comfort, and versatility. She's one to watch...

Rush Hour in Greygrove

You might get caught in a little rush hour traffic if you travel the backroads of Clare
either in the early morning or early evening. If you do find yourself sitting behind a
herd of dawdling cows, be patient. Don't listen to front seat drivers (like my mother)
who challenge you to drive up on the bony hips of the cows to force them in out of the way.

Just sit back, enjoy the view, and if you're very lucky–that grand healthy smell, too!

"What in the name of God is that wan doing taking a picture of cows arses?
She must be a Yank!"

Oct 20, 2009

See U2 Live for Free (on YouTube)

Can't afford U2 tickets? Not sure you love U2's latest album? Don't like standing in line for forty-five minutes to use the bathroom or to get an overpriced beer? No plans Sunday night? Well, tidy up a bit and put the kettle on because Bono and the boys (and 96,000 fans) are coming over! U2's sold-out concert at the Pasadena Rose Bowl in California, will be streamed free, in full, and live on YouTube this coming Sunday, in the first ever global concert webcast.
Rock out, wear your flannel jammies, use your own toilet!

Sunday, October 25 at 8.30PM (PT)

Oct 19, 2009

Irish Barm Brack: Take 1!

I didn't have pumpkin puffs, shrunken heads in cider, or eye-popping soup for Halloween as a kid in Ireland, but I did have Barm Brack. I'll tell you more about this divine–and divining–food in the next day or so; for now, I'll share a few photos from my first attempt at baking it this weekend...

The most important step in making barm brack is to soak the
raisins and sultanas overnight in brewed black tea and sugar.
Turns out, I was quite talented at this first and most important step,
producing a tasty brew of fat and juicy raisins.
Thank you, thank you.

I was careful when mixing in the flour and egg
so as not to burst those plump and prize-worthy raisins.

When my loaf first came out of the oven,
I slapped myself on the back;
it looked good and smelled delicious.

Then I cut it...

The crispy golden shell hid a mushy center...

I ate it anyway.
I wouldn't recommend eating mushy-center cake.

Those perfect sultanas and raisins deserve a perfect bread to lie in.
I'm soaking a fresh batch right now in preparation for the next episode of
Irish Barm Brack: Take 2!

Oct 13, 2009

Tea and a Thought: The Angelus

I occasionally tune into RTÉ Radio 1 for a little bit of home while I drink my afternoon tea. I'm always surprised and comforted (especially when I listen to Joe Duffy or Marian Finucane) to hear conversations–genuine conversations with real people–that are unrushed, and seemingly unaffected by the general opinion that today's listeners can only handle bite-size content. Anyway, this morning, I looked at the menu of Radio 1 programs, and decided on The Documentary Hour. Well, I didn't know whether to fall over, or fall to my knees, when the program opened with that old familiar BONG, BONG, BONG of the Angelus.

In Ireland, the Angelus–the ringing of a bell calling for prayer–is broadcast
every night at 6:00 pm on the TV channel RTE 1, before the Six O'Clock
news, and on the radio station Radio 1, at noon and 6:00 pm.

I was immediately thrown back to my grandmother's kitchen, where I was on my knees leaning over a cushioned chair, rattling off responses to what could have been an auction for cattle, such was the pace and coherence of the prayers. I don't even remember which prayers we said, just that whatever we had been doing or saying before that was stopped and knocked abruptly to its knees at the summoning of those bells. I do remember knowing at a very early age that the news was extremely important, and that Charlie Bird and Anne Doyle were messengers of God, as it was a mortal sin to talk over them.

Hearing the bells again this morning, I wondered that they are still ringing in today's Ireland. RTÉ has been broadcasting the Angelus over the radio since the 50s, and on television since the 60s, but it's a distinctly Roman Catholic prayer, one marking the Annunciation–the moment the Angel Gabriel told Mary that she was to be the mother of Jesus. The listening and viewing audiences today are far more diverse than in the 50s and 60s, and with all the scandals and scoundrels in the Church, it's fair to say the attitude to the Catholic Church is a little less reverent than it was in the good old days. Most of all, I'm gobsmacked that the precious airtime before the news hasn't yet been bought or sold to one of the more revered churches like the Church of Ronald McDonald or the Church of Vodafone.

Seems I had a little ESP thing going with RTÉ; just a few weeks ago, they revamped the Angelus. Rather than get rid of it, and open themselves up to potential uproar at the idea of kicking the country when it is already down on its knees praying for economic recovery, they brought it up to date. The gongs remain, but the Angelus is now referred to as a "moment of grace and peace." Also, the still shots of medieval paintings of Mary and the Angel Gabriel have been replaced with a rotation of soothing images to prompt reflection and pause, and possibly (unintentionally) even prayer. These include a street artist sketching praying hands on Dublin's College Green near Trinity College; a Zambian immigrant gazing out of her window towards the Phoenix Park in Dublin; a mother in County Clare polishing a memorial stone to her drowned son; an older couple feeding swans on the Shannon, and a fisherman at sea on his trawler.

I enjoyed Irish Times columnist, Shane Hegarty's take on the new Angelus. Overall, he likes that the nation still gets a moment to take a breath, compose itself and let its thoughts drift, just before the news arrives to shatter that composure, but he questions the continuation of an obviously secular ritual. He had a few suggestions for really updating it:

"Perhaps it shouldn’t always be a moment of grace and peace. Maybe it should be a minute to give the nation a boost. A guaranteed happy minute in any day, regardless of what’s going on. I find myself moved to suggest a daily funny YouTube clip, but the proportion of people annoyed by videos of sneezing cats is probably higher than those annoyed by the Angelus."


"a properly revamped Angelus replacement should give the nation a collective moment, a reminder of those rare moments when the country is united in joy. Sport offers us that. So, perhaps we could take a minute each evening to show footage of Ronan O’Gara’s drop kick against Wales, or Eamonn Coghlan winning the World Championships. Or they could show every kick of the 1990 World Cup penalty shoot-out. You could even add the bongs – one with every kick. It would, no doubt, keep the traditionalists happy.

I'm not sure how I feel about the Angelus. To be honest, it didn't bother me all these years assuming it was gone, and not dropping to my knees before the news here in Brooklyn, but I have to admit I had a warm feeling of nostalgia when I heard those knee-weary gongs this morning. I'm all for inclusion and understand that the Angelus bells offend secularists, rationalists, and even some constitutionalists (all paying to watch their TVs), but selfishly and romantically, those gongs are a song from my past–a simple brainwashed song, maybe–but I'm glad they're still ringing.

Sigh, if only I could arrange for a twice-a-day bell to remind me to stop, think, and listen to the news...

Oct 6, 2009

Spotlight: Love Lambie

The trees on my street are flirtily shrugging off their leaves to fully embrace Fall's crisp breezes; I'm less affectionate, reaching for flannel, corduroy, wool, and Rogaine (for body hair) to help my body adjust to the sun's sudden disinterest in my patch of earth. I sometimes wonder if–back in the day–Mother Earth instructed the trees to shake off their leaves so that bare-assed Adam and Eve could craft them into clothing, in a Project-Genesis "make it work" kind of way. I imagine Eve asking Adam if her butt looked big in oak leaves, and Adam abandoning Eve, and leaves, when he discovered sheep...and wool.

Like the original Adam, I'm drawn to sheep and wool, especially this time of year, so you can imagine how excited I was to discover the woolly wonders of Dublin's Love Lambie.
I mean, how cute are these "Lambie Loves Ewe" sheep mittens?

And this "Love Your Lamb" aran-wool hat...

And what of these fabulous fingerless mittens/wrist-warmers? Love Lambie created them especially to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Guinness. Apparently, their studios are only minutes from the Guinness brewery where the black nectar hops are brewed daily, so it can be safely assumed that these mittens have Guinness in their fibres!
(With so many New York bars serving Guinness chilled these days, I'm thinking it'd be handy to have a pair of these wrist-warmers stashed in my handbag. Can't wait to say "my goodness my mittens!" when I produce them from my bag.)

Find Love Lambie's untacky knitbits at LoveLambie.etsy.com

Oct 2, 2009

Ememem on Grey's Anatomy

I'm not exactly a Grey's Anatomy fan; I watch it if I happen upon it, but I don't exactly plan my week around it. Now, if they could get George Clooney in their ER (preferably as a patient in a backless gown), I'd plan my life around it. Anyway, last night I happened upon Grey's Anatomy while avoiding laundry duties, and I squealed with delight when I saw a cute little pink felted bear from Irish designer, Ememem, pinned to Cristina's jacket.
I wrote about Ememem a few weeks ago, and I'm so excited for this rascal little bear to make it in Hollywood. And what a performance!

He held his own there on Cristina's lapel. I see great things in store for this hot pink little bear from Galway; perhaps a stint on Dancing With The Stars?

Figuring that felted bears might be all the rage now after that comic performance, I checked Ememem's store to see if Hollywood's latest hottie has a clone there. I don't see an exact twin in stock at the moment, but the cerise pink and red bears pictured above are close relatives, and would make great gifts for a Grey's Anatomy fan (or your local hardass in need of some softening!) Get one before they get agents...