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Low Mileage Kitchen: Coddle yourself with Irish country fare

FROM THE FARMSTAND

The year-round Chicago’s Downtown Farmstand, 66 E. Randolph, offers Midwest-grown foods and other locally produced edibles, including those used in this recipe. Cooking classes are offered through the World Kitchen program (chicagoworldkitchen.org); registration for the new season begins at noon March 23. Reach the Farmstand at (312) 742-8419, or go to chicagofarmstand.com.

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



Just when the gray, snow-filled days of March begin to grate on everyone’s nerves, there appears on the calendar a day full of mirth, silly slogans, green hats — and the amazing sight of a bright green river right in the center of the city.

In Chicago, St. Patrick’s Day is an institution. And no wonder.

The Irish first came to Chicago in 1836, one year before the city’s incorporation. They came because there was steady work with decent pay. Most of these hard-working men were employed to build the Illinois and Michigan Canal and to work in the Stockyards. More came later to avoid the potato famine, and by 1850, about 20 percent of Chicago’s population were Irish immigrants.

Today, nearly three-quarters of a million people in Chicago are Irish descendants.

Ireland in the mid-1800s had a population of 8 million, most of whom were among the poorest people in the Western world.

Their land was rocky and the weather wet and unpredictable. They were laborers who lived in an agricultural society. Many lived on tenant farms where they built small homes and cultivated tiny potato plots to feed their families. Some were given garden plots by employers but were required to use a portion of their crop as rent payment.

These poor Irish laborers became totally dependent on the potato for their existence. The insecurity of knowing they might be evicted at any moment loomed large. How would they feed themselves and their families?

From 1845 to 1851, their biggest fears became reality. The great potato famine killed more than a million men, women and children. Another million left the country to survive. Many of those emigrants came to Chicago and became the backbone of the growing and prospering city.

The Irish were followed to Chicago by the Germans; both communities developed rapidly here in the late-1800s. The Germans, who were employed in the Stockyards and butcher shops, brought with them their love of pickled and cured meats and their skill at making those products.

It is widely believed that they, not the Irish, first sold corned beef in Chicago, which, combined with potatoes and cabbage, became the dish most celebrated and associated with St. Patrick’s Day.

Here, then, is coddle, a typical everyday recipe from the Irish countryside, transported to Chicago. It incorporates the inexpensive potatoes, onions and cabbage that were plentiful in winter in the Irish immigrant’s new home.

And it includes the German influence of corned beef, but without the toil of brining and slow-cooking the meat. Just visit the deli case, assemble the dish and let it cook slowly until dinnertime.

Wondering about the name coddle? The Oxford English Dictionary defines coddle as a verb: to protect attentively, pamper, baby, mollycoddle or cook (as an egg) in water below the boiling point.

So coddle your family with this comforting, slow-cooked dish, and celebrate the arrival of the Irish to the shores of Lake Michigan. Wearing green while enjoying it is entirely optional.

Judith Dunbar Hines is director of culinary arts and events for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, which operates Chicago’s Downtown Farmstand.



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