Irish Stew and Irish Sacrifices

Irish Stew (and, yes, we eat it over rice, even though it contains potatoes)

Irish Stew (and, yes, we eat it over rice, even though it contains potatoes)

One of my Cajun father’s favorite meals was Irish stew. My mom cobbled her version together with the typical beef, carrots, onions and potatoes, and thickened it with roux.

Aside from a dynamite stew, the Irish made rich contributions to Louisiana culture. But, as with African slaves, their beginnings here were extremely trying.

Fleeing British tyranny, the Irish began arriving in Catholic-friendly New Orleans at the end of the 18th century, and came in droves beginning in 1820, when they were forced out of their home country by famine. Although many were successful and bought property and businesses, the majority of Irish immigrants were uneducated and ended up doing menial labor.

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New Basin Canal, New Orleans, 1915

In 1830, the city’s American leaders decided to compete with rival French merchants and dig a shipping canal from Lake Pontchartrain to the American sector. Since slaves were considered too valuable to do such treacherous, and possibly fatal work, digging jobs for what was to be called the New Basin Canal went to Irish immigrants.

Desperate for money, workers dug on the canal even when deathly sick. So by the time the canal was completed, an estimated 8,000-30,000 Irish had perished on the job. Many bodies were buried, or just left, right where they’d fallen.

In 1990, the Irish Cultural Society of New Orleans erected a Celtic cross at the end of New Orleans’s West End Boulevard in honor of the fallen workers. So here’s to the Irish of New Orleans, not only for their delicious stew, but also for their unimaginable sacrifices.

 

Olives Make Their Way to the New World

Olive Jar at Magnolia Mound Plantation, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Olive Oil Jar at Magnolia Mound Plantation, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

From the size of the jar in this photo, it’s pretty easy to deduce that olive oil was an important commodity for the French who first settled in Louisiana.

Begun in 5000 BC, olive cultivation spread from Crete to Israel to Italy and eventually to southern France. Around the Mediterranean region, olive oil was considered sacred, and was used in medicine and religious ceremonies.

Remarkably, olive trees can live from 300-400 years. This member of the family Oleaceae thrives in harsh conditions, with Italian folk wisdom claiming they do best with sun, stone, drought, silence and solitude.

Olive trees certainly weren’t a natural fit for Louisiana’s soggy climate, but Franciscan missionaries did establish groves in California in the late 18th century. Today, olive trees are common in that state’s wine country, and producers are churning out some fairly impressive oils.

Roselle, The Tea Hibiscus

Roselle buds ready to be picked. I'll dry the calyx, outer part, and use a handful to make tea.

Roselle buds ready to be picked. I’ll dry the calyx, outer part, and use a handful to make tea.

I was first introduced to roselle by my Herb Society buddy Melinda Winans, who gave me a few seedlings that promptly rocketed into tall bushes festooned with large maroon-colored buds. The calyx, the bright red outer part of the bud, can be dried and steeped into a tart, refreshing tea that, for eons, has been consumed around the world.

Roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa) is native to the Old World Tropics. This relative of the garden hibiscus is extremely popular in places like Thailand, Senegal, Sudan, Jamaica, Mexico, and South America. There, both hot and iced roselle teas are common, while some folks even eat the leaves and roots.

Iced Roselle Tea

Iced Roselle Tea

Research shows that a dried calyx is very high in vitamin C, and many devotees swear it lowers cholesterol, is good for the heart, and is a diuretic. In Southeast Asia, roselle is even known as the “Oriental Beauty Fruit,” because it supposedly keeps your complexion looking dewey-young.

Hmmm. I have a few dried calyces in the cupboard. I think it’s time to brew up a cup of roselle tea.

It’s Persimmon Time!

These early beauties came from the Baton Rouge Red Stick Farmers Market.

These early beauties came from the Baton Rouge Red Stick Farmers Market.

A delicious right of fall in Louisiana is the “turning of the persimmons,” which miraculously happens every year beginning in October, when this fruit (that’s technically a berry) changes from a leaf green color to pumpkin orange.

Persimmons are native to China, where they’ve been cultivated over 2,000 years.

Louisiana does have native varieties, but gardeners tend to have better luck with orientals like Hana Fugu and Fugu, which are 7-10 times larger and have less seeds. Japanese varieties made their way to the U.S. in the 1800s, and grow well in the South and California.

Although persimmons are great baked in quick breads and cookies, I prefer them raw, and snatch up as many as I can during the season.