A Brief History of the Potato Farl

norma

Lucy’s Grandma Norma, around the time that she arrived in the US from Ireland

It’s Culture Day at my daughter’s school this week, and incidentally we just celebrated St. Patrick’s day, so as much as my daughter’s culture around food usually includes anchovies, blue cheese, sushi, and Mint Confetti Ice Cream from Three Twins, she is also quite Irish indeed and it would make sense for us to bring something Irish to share at school.

After somewhat of a disagreement over whether she could bring anchovies to share with her classmates, I came across a recipe for potato farls, cooked them up, got our girl to eat one whereupon she pronounced it delicious, and Culture Day was decided.  First, I got into a little bit of historical meaning behind this food, which I bring to you now.

The potato farl is similar to a potato pancake and is made basically of fried mashed potatoes. It is highly associated with Northern Ireland, and in particular with its main city Belfast. Lucy’s grandmother Norma emigrated from Belfast with her parents when she was a teenager, so our family is strongly associated with Northern Irish culture.

The word farl is pronounced farrel and derives from the old Scots word fardel, which essentially means “a quarter.” Many types of typically irish breads and potato pancakes are round doughs cut into quarters and cooked in a skillet, which is how the farl got its name.

The potato farl’s history is tied closely together with Irish soda bread (or soda farls) for a few important reasons. Ireland’s climate lends itself to growing softer wheats, which led to a popularity of baking breads without yeast, and hence frying up soda or potato breads in a pan:

In Ireland, ‘plain’ soda bread is as likely to be eaten as an accompaniment to a main meal (to soak up the gravy) as it’s likely to appear at breakfast. It comes in two main colors, brown and white, and two main types: cake and farl. People in the south of Ireland tend to make cake: people in Northern Ireland seem to like farl better – though both kinds appear in both North and South, sometimes under wildly differing names.

– From Peter’s Mum’s Soda Bread Recipe

But Ireland is known through the ages as a particularly poor country, and potatoes were a very economical food. ”About two-fifths of the population was solely reliant on this cheap crop for a number of historical reasons.” (Great Famine (Ireland) – Wikipedia)

Soda bread cooking in a heavy pot on the fire, from http://kitchenproject.com/history/IrishSodaBreads/

Soda bread cooking in a heavy pot on the fire, from http://kitchenproject.com/history/IrishSodaBreads/. Lucy’s great-great grandmother would have cooked in a similar fashion on a hearth on Clementine Drive in Belfast.

A poor country discovered that potatoes and milk made a nutritious enough meal to exist on and you could grow more potatoes per acre than any other crop. Soda bread was probably not made as much because of this reason.

– From The History of Irish Soda Bread

That began to change from potatoes to soda bread in the year of 1845. That year, a devastating blight wiped out Ireland’s potato crop and led to many years of what was known as the famous Great Famine. “During the famine approximately 1 million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland, causing the island’s population to fall by between 20% and 25%.” (Great Famine (Ireland) – Wikipedia)

Without potatoes, Ireland turned more strongly back to soda breads baked with more of Ireland’s soft wheats instead of potatoes. Both soda breads and potato farls, however, share their use of baking powder (bicarbonate of soda) as leavening agent instead of yeast.

While Lucy’s grandmother’s family didn’t emigrate until a hundred years after the Great Famine, the seeds of what was a mass emigration from Ireland may have been planted at that time.

Today, potatoes have revived and are back on the table. In the US, we are lucky that we can enjoy an abundance of many different kinds of potatoes year-round, and those of us who are Irish will remember our great love of, dependence on, and recovery from the blight of the great food that is the potato, delicious in many ways.

The recipe we are using to bring to school comes from The Guardian at http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/mar/14/how-to-make-potato-farls-back-to-basics. We’ll bring along a healthy slab of Irish butter just for extra decoration.

Cheers — and enjoy your culture and your food.  It’s why we’re all here!

Elizabeth Black, 1914, Belfast

Lucy’s great-great grandmother Elizabeth Black, in 1914 in Belfast, with great Aunt Nan to her left, and great grandpa Norman on her lap.  Elizabeth would have cooked potato farls on the hearth in there home on Clementine Drive.

The adorable boys who melted everyone’s hearts yesterday at City Hall

San Francisco became the city of love again yesterday when the 9th Circuit lifted its stay on same-sex marriage. Weddings began almost immediately at SF City Hall and continued into the evening.

These adorable boys were handing flowers to every newlywed couple they saw.

Because love is love. So simple even adults know it when they see it.

What’s it like to have umbilical hernia repair surgery?

It’s 11 days after my surgery for umbilical hernia repair and I feel just about back to normal, though I’m still not supposed to lift anything over 20 pounds for another few weeks. In a nutshell, the surgery was a breeze; the recovery not so much, but I have no major complaints. Here’s the long story about how I got here.

I’ll spare you the narrative of my ENTIRE life since my own birth, but I know having an umbilical hernia for me at least goes all the way back to 2004, when I gave birth to our wonderful girl. I had occasionally noticed in the years post-partum that I had a small lump above my belly button. Sometimes. Usually not while lying down, but more prominent while standing. I just guessed it was one of the many ways my body has been touched by the pregnancy experience. It never bothered me.

Until Tuesday, May 1, 2012 (MAY DAY). I had a typical workout in the afternoon which included some basic abdominal crunches. I didn’t notice anything at first, but while I was driving home I was in sudden, throbbing abdominal pain which came in waves and caused me to remember childbirth and breathing exercises. At first I thought it was yet another strike of the norovirus and that I was about to vomit — but the pain stayed constant and I did not, in fact, vomit.

By the time I reached home, I felt and looked at my belly and noticed a larger protrusion than ever before above my belly button, and I knew I was destined for the emergency room. Had I thought about icing in advance, I might have saved myself that trip, but I don’t think I would have had such a fast plan to action had I not visited the ER.

alienIn the lovely Davies ER, the doctor tried to palpate to see if he could press my Sigourney Weaver lump back in (ok, maybe it wasn’t THAT big), but it was way way too tender for him to get near. I was given Dilaudid for the pain, and an ice pack over my belly. When the doctor returned a bit later to see if he could press the protrusion back in, surprise: it had already slipped back in. This made the essential difference, I believe, between having a “strangulated hernia” (a medical emergency requiring immediate surgery) and an “incarcerated hernia” (for which repair can be scheduled at leisure). Fortunately my body opted for the latter. I went home (I walked! Carefully. I felt too nauseated for a car) about two hours later.

I got to meet with the surgeon, Dr. Robert Murray, the next day. He was great, and came quickly to the point. He determined that it was a relatively small tear, that he could stitch it up instead of having to use mesh, and that there was no rush but that I was not to lift anything heavier than 20 pounds until 4-6 weeks after getting it repaired. Since I have been trying to exercise regularly, and since I LOVE holding my 50-lb 7-year-old girl, I opted for as soon as possible. Miraculously and with much aligning of stars, surgery was scheduled for the following Monday, May 7, at (the also lovely) St. Mary’s Medical Center.

I spent Friday getting a blood panel and EKG as preparation for surgery, didn’t eat anything Sunday night, and arrived at St. Mary’s at 8am on Monday morning.

There was very little waiting around — it was my first time at St. Marys and I found it pleasant overall. The rooms were private, the nurses and attendants responsive, and everything seemed efficient. By 9a my IV was in (first try — with much relief and thanks to nurse Debbie), and I was down in the prep area. I met with Dr. Murray and consulted with the anesthesiologist – who then rattled off an intriguing cocktail of complicated sounding drugs that would soon be flowing into my veins.

I was wheeled into the operating room, which was pleasantly chilly and decorated all over with blue tile, as if we were in a bathtub. On the gurney, arms out to sides, the anesthesiologist said “it will be about 10 seconds.” I looked at the clock — 9:30 — and that was that.

Suddenly, I was told to breathe in through a mask (oxygen?) and was back in the post-op room – the same room as the pre-op room. The clock said 10:30.

I was asked my name – several times through the process – was asked about pain (none at that time) and waited around being generally out of it for a bit. I looked at my belly, which was patched with gauze and a 4″x4″ plastic adhesive. I was told not to scratch my eyes. Suddenly it was 11:15. I was wheeled back up to my room, where my lovely wife Leanne was waiting for me.

That’s all it took — I eschewed Vicodin as a pain-killer since it depresses me, and favored Percocet, which I had not tried before. I was back home by 1p. The first day was fine — almost pleasant.

I felt a bit sea-sick lying down to sleep and had a disturbed rest. I kept feeling like I was biting my tongue (a ramification of pain killers?) and started to experience significant pain. I took Percocet and Zofran at least every four hours. The next day was not so great. I awoke to find my gauze pad completely bloody, and was in a lot of pain as if there were a knife in my stomach. It was hard to sit up from lying down. I felt like I really needed to roll over, then stand from being sideways. I must have had about 8 Percocet in the first day post-op and didn’t feel like it had any effect. I called the doctor about the bloody gauze – I was afraid I would never stop bleeding – and got an appointment for Thursday.

Dr. Murray changed the bandage on Thursday and assured me it was going well, but that I should remove the bandage on Saturday because I was evidently allergic to the plastic cover. He also told me I needed to be taking Ibuprofen together with the Percocet — something I was not told before. I’m not sure if doing this for the next couple of days or if just the passage of time made the pain start to ease.

It was after that that I noticed the hives all over my belly. Still not sure if this was because of the Percocet or the plastic. And my bowels hadn’t worked for – well – days, despite Colace.

Things started to get better on Saturday and I pitched the Percocet and was excited to take off the bandage, having fully forgotten about steristrips. The steristrips came off by Monday, and I used a little antibiotic and a bandaid for the next week.

The area looked bloody and spotted with rash for the first few days, but today I just have a slightly swollen red line around the rim of my navel where the surgeon inserted the tiny tools. I don’t see any trace of infection, which I had been worried about.

The really unpleasant part of post-op included my bowels, as a side-effect of the pain medication. I had never had such pain getting started again … The Colace seemed to do nothing. I tried some laxatives upon the advice of my mom, which worked fine — a couple days later. It seemed to take my body awhile to react to these medications. If I were to do this over again, I would have asked if I could have started the stool-softener process in advance of surgery.

Which brings us today, 11 days post-op. I probably won’t wear a bandaid by tomorrow and I only feel the smallest bit of a twinge — a little tiny pinch, really — on my navel. One disconcerting thing is a bit of swelling and hardness around my whole navel, almost as if I still have a hernia and in fact as if it has grown. I gather this is normal post-op and is a sort of swelling and healing that will eventually subside. I have a checkup with the surgeon in 10 days and after that I’m expecting the go-or-no-go for lifting and carrying things and generally exercising back to normal again.

So my key recommendations for you, dear readers, are these:

  1. Feeling a hernia? Try ice first. But of course, also go to the emergency room if you need to.
  2. Talk in advance with your surgeon about pain medications. Be clear not only on what you want, if you have a preference, but how to use it and with what other medications.
  3. Ask in advance what to expect from the bandaging — bleeding OK?
  4. Plan for constipation: is it OK to take stool softeners in advance? I don’t know the answer…
  5. Uber is a great way to get to and from your surgeries. Costs a bit more, but worth it.
  6. Have amazing friends lined up to drive and deliver things (Leanne, Liz, Rob, David… hugs).

Things really went well as a whole, and I’m looking forward to being stronger than ever in a few weeks when I can start exercising again. Thanks for witnessing this part of my life story and I hope it brings some comfort if you are facing the same experience.

Update — May 2013:  I’ve been amazed and gratified at the dozens and dozens of comments here and the generosity of sharing of experiences. It’s now a year post-surgery, and I’m as strong as ever if not stronger.

Update — September 2014: Still going strong.  Thanks all for sharing your own experiences in the comments!

 

 

The circus of innovation — Lincoln and Facebook

Who doesn’t love a story that combines a day off, a road trip, the circus, Abraham Lincoln and Facebook, and a neat parable on innovation to boot – whatever THAT is. It’s a circus I say!

Shout out to this wonderful story by Nate St. Pierre:

A patent request for Facebook, filed by Abraham Lincoln in 1845.

So that’s what I did on my day off: a random road trip, a circus graveyard, a poker game between a showman and a president, and the discovery that good ol’ Honest Abe was a man well ahead of his time.

http://natestpierre.me/2012/05/08/abraham-lincoln-patent-facebook/

2011 SAINTS. A musical salvation.


2011 has been a very good year for music.  While it’s not over yet, I got a jump on my end-of-year mix because of the urgency of the task. I’ve been so saved by much of the year’s music in many ways. I’m also including a nod to some of the nice surprises from 2010, but the balance is all new, all this year.

I used to do a mix every year but haven’t for the last couple of years. I’m happy to be pressing again. This one investigates the qualities and battles of light and dark — inside.  We’ve got it all.

  1. Muppet Show Theme Song • OK Go • Muppets: The Green Album • 2011
  2. Wake Up Your Saints • The National • High Violet (Expanded Edition) • 2010
  3. Holy Holy • Wye Oak • Civilian • 2011
  4. Midnight City • M83 • Hurry Up We’re Dreaming • 2011
  5. Hair • Lady Gaga • Born This Way • 2011
  6. The Change • Evanescence • Evanescence • 2011
  7. Dear Rosemary • Foo Fighters • Wasting Light • 2011
  8. Stamp • The Rural Alberta Advantage • Departing • 2011
  9. The Bad In Each Other • Feist • Metals • 2011
  10. Lily (Director’s Cut) • Kate Bush • Director’s Cut • 2011
  11. Only If For A Night • Florence + The Machine • Ceremonials • 2011
  12. Keep Your Heart • TV On The Radio • Nine Types Of Light • 2011
  13. I Don’t Want Love • The Antlers • Burst Apart • 2011
  14. Perth • Bon Iver • Bon Iver • 2011
  15. The Rip Tide • Beirut • The Rip Tide • 2011
  16. The Devil’s Tears • Angus & Julia Stone • Down The Way • 2010
  17. Like Me • Chely Wright • Lifted Off The Ground • 2010
  18. Mercy Of The Fallen • Dar Williams • Many Great Companions • 2010

it’s time to light the lights
wake up your saints
for the blessed
city is my church
this is my prayer
screaming on the inside
you’re part of me you know you are
i will save you and i don’t need you
the good man and good woman
as we journey to thy sacred feet
you came over me like some holy rite
these words are not a bit profound
climb up the stairs
something faint
the waves and i
she’s my home
they’ll love you
we have some of them inside us

PS: hands-down the best musical show of the year and certainly in the top of all time: Beirut at the Independent. Thank you Victor.