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.

Tribute

wanda

Wanda Watson - July 31, 1991 - November 4, 2010

We laid beloved kitty Wanda to rest two days ago, on Thursday, November 4, 2010, after her short period of collapse — after a long and warm life of nearly 20 years.

Wanda had been my constant companion for over 17 years in 6 of my various 8 San Francisco homes. I can’t imagine living in a home anywhere without her presence, and I still hear her on the stairs and across the floor, see her sleeping in every soft place, and feel her fluffy purring as I lie and try to rest in my new quiet Wandalessness.

When I moved to Landers Street in 1993, I was separating from a relationship of five years. It was a painful and confusing time, and I found my new solo apartment thunderously silent. I went to the SF Animal Shelter and I saw her. Wanda was a young fluffy thing at 1-1/2 years old and had been abandoned by some soulless creature who never had any idea what they were going to miss over the next 17 years. She looked straight at me with her huge yellow eyes, held my gaze, and said “take me home.”

When I took her home she immediately burrowed into the mirrored cabinet corner as if she was seeking her litter. Within a few days she emerged, and began watching over me while I slept, poking my eyes and mouth and nose gently as if to see if this dream was real. After that, I could feel that she never let me out of her radar as long as I was in the house.

wanda and moya on xmas eve

wanda and moya on xmas eve

We moved quickly to a warmer tiny studio apartment on Lloyd Street, which was the home of many legends in our lives. She loved the warm perch with a sunny view, and in the studio she could always be near me. When I was not home, she retreated to a lump under my bed covers, which is the way most of my friends got to know her at first. When I approached home from way down the block, in a car or on foot, she would immediately rouse and hop out onto the fire escape to greet me. I will never cease to be amazed at how she always leapt out for me no matter what time of day or night I approached. When I came through the door, she always greeted me loudly with the Wanda(tm) yowl of cranky-sounding delight.

spike and wanda

spike and wanda

When Leanne and I moved in together on Vicksburg, Wanda first met her step-brother Spike. Spike was by all accounts an incredible, daunting, and epic animal. In many ways, there could not have been two more different beasts. While Wanda retreated during the daytime to hide under the bed or blanket, Spike trotted on the sidewalk, and waited. While Wanda’s feline fantasies struck out in the night in solitary bursts, Spike gathered her up and patiently taught her the intricacies of mousing. Spike spent at least 9 out of 9 lives exercising every bit of maximum animalness, and died early in 2003 at 9 years old, the very second the heart of our girl Lucy started beating. Wanda lived a long warm fairly quiet and very devoted life. In this way, they differed not at all: they were both devoted to us.

Even though Lucy refocused all of our time, Wanda welcomed her into our home. Wanda patiently taught Lucy how to be kind to animals, and gave Lucy a great way to learn about being gentle. She amazed us with her agility, although she was already elderly, with accepting Lucy and tolerating infant and toddler love. In many ways, Wanda really emerged after Lucy was born. She came out to play, greeted guests and total strangers, learned of the presence of several other felines in the Clinton Mews, had many caring visitors and caretakers, and generally a happy existence with us for the past several years.

wanda and lucy

wanda and lucy

Lucy has been the dearest person to Wanda in her last few days, preparing comfortable spots and sharing her sardines. Now Lucy is coping mostly internally, as I know too well, fairly capably with a mostly incomprehensible wound.

I don’t yet know what to do with the few things I kept that I can’t part with. I catch them in the corner of my eye and see Wanda. As we prepare to go out of town for the night, I catch myself walking across to make sure Wanda has enough food and water to take care of herself while we are gone. And when I come back home, there will be no cranky hello. This is going to take quite some time, but I will listen for you, Wanda, until I can realize you are frolicing with brother Spike and all the good company that came before you, letting me know I too can move on to open my heart to the next furry adventure.

free wanda

free wanda

Wanda, thank you, Wanda.  I will miss you every day. Thank you.

Louise’s Garden

A memorial, it would seem, is about the memorialized, so my own journey in figuring out how to speak at Louise Doggett’s memorial today should have been secondary to Louise herself. In the end, though, so much was said about this woman by so many different people at this great event, that it struck me how any given person is so much all about who that person touches and how they are touched. In speaking about someone who is gone, we talk about how they live on through the lives of others. Often we talk about things that maybe never actually happened, but in our memories, this was what became real through someone else’s influence. We transformed. Perhaps this is what it means to be a perennial.

My family was greatly touched by the Doggett family; for me those were especially formative years. I was honored to speak and this is some of what struck me at three in the morning about what I wanted to say today:

Let’s go back to the decade of the 1970’s, when the Watson family moved to Sacramento and met and began our long love affair with the Doggett family.

I spent a lot of time in the Doggett house on Crocker Road, and in my memory the house itself was like a garden in the wilderness. To me, it was a huge and magical place where all sorts of wild things grew.

Through the front door, when I listen I can still hear Louise calling “Victoriaaaaa” – kind of like a bird, and I can see inside the house. The piano stood just to the right when you walked in. Music was an undercurrent, like a blood flow through the house, and it seemed to me Victoria was particularly adept at playing anything at all she wanted — like “Beth” or “I’d like to teach the world to sing.”

The master bedroom was to the left, which I strangely remember as being a place for foot baths (this drew much puzzlement from Victoria when I said it, so it’s clearly a piece I invented all on my own). Wendy’s room just beyond was the image of sunny lemon yellow and a matching sunny smile from Wendy. Then there was a back room with a TV that regularly played Monty Python and the Carol Burnett show, complemented by an assortment of medical books that were somehow treated like porn what with the naughty pictures in Greys Anatomy books. This seems to be the scene of many ghost tales during slumber parties in my memory too.

I don’t remember Louise hanging out in the kitchen much. The cooking I best remember in the kitchen was to create Ethel’s Sugar Cookies and Scotte’s boiled, peeled tomatoes. There was a kind of forbidden attic place where the strong and somewhat mysterious Scott had his lair.

But I spent the majority of my time with Victoria, Orangie, and Blackie in Victoria’s sunny front room.

Where was Loiuse? She was in the garden. In the huge back yard. With a hat, a basket, gardening gloves, a flowered mumu, and probably a few various forms of magic potions. And a rabbit named Petunia (or was it a guinea pig?).

Louise gave me one of the most significant relationships in my life in her daughter Victoria, and her tremendous spirit continues through the many untold passages of creativity from person to person to person. Almost like navigating through the wilderness, in a garden that she not so much tamed as tended, she wrought — and she gave — great gifts of life. What more could be said? Thank you Louise.

In the end many people spoke of many things today, and I did stand up and talk about some of the things above. Just now they seem not so much all Louise — but not so much all me. Somehow I feel both introspective and universal.

The kryptonite that bought Prop 8

via creative commons license from courosa on flickr

via creative commons license from courosa on flickr

Freeze-frame in memory from my daughter’s infancy:

She’s rolling around on the floor several feet away. I’m talking with someone on the couch. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a tall lamp post begin to fall in a trajectory towards my daughter’s head. I leap up from the couch and my body flies horizontally, lingering in mid-air to barely intercept the lamp post before it makes contact with her head. Then everything returns to normal, I’m back on the couch, and we resume our conversation.

In fact, what was happening behind the scenes was that my body was transforming from mild-mannered “parent” into cape-clad superhero, faster than the speeding lamp post that threatened my child. Parents in particular are instinctually familiar with this state, but I have learned that these powers used in service of good are also highly vulnerable to purposeful deception when the safety of kids is involved.

In Behind the numbers of Prop. 8 today in the LA Times, David Fleischer takes us through the revealing study of just how effectively the awesome power of parental instincts was exploited to move a half a million parents to pass Prop 8 in California:

The Yes on 8 campaign targeted parents in its TV ads. “Mom! Guess what I learned in school today!” were the cheery-frightening first words of the supporters’ most-broadcast ad. They emerged from the mouth of a young girl who had supposedly just learned that she could marry a female when she grew up.

Among the array of untrue ideas that parents could easily take away: that impressionable kids would be indoctrinated; that they would learn about gay sex; that they would be more likely to become gay; and that they might choose to be gay. California voters, depending on where they lived in the state, were exposed to the Yes on 8 ads 20 to 40 times.

This deception is the kryptonite that bought Prop 8. It’s important to note that these parents are far from evil. They are not motivated by hatred, as Fleischer points out most crucially:

Another misconception was that those who voted for Proposition 8 were motivated by hate. This does not describe most of the 687,000 who changed their minds in the closing weeks. After all, they supported same-sex marriage before the opposition peeled them away. Yes, they turned out to be susceptible to an appeal based on anti-gay prejudice. But they were frightened by misinformation.

Although it is is not news to folks close to the campaign that we lost because of these school scare tactics, it’s good to see it validated in today’s report. Yet while the No On Prop 8 campaign reacted as if stunned by the explosion of kryptonite, and the other side knew all too well we didn’t have time after the ad-bombs to recoup in the dwindling days of the election, we’ve all had no excuse to not see this coming again. In fact, the exact same ads were used with success to beat gay marriage just last year in Maine.

The blame is not on the parents who are only doing what they are instinctually conditioned to do. Likewise, the solution lies not in further trickery and deception. To truly help parents continue to do what they do best is to expose these scare tactics for what they are, but sadly, the element of fear remains a top-seller in our world. I have asked myself how to neutralize this element every single day post Prop 8.

Return of the Sun

Light

Light

We went to the Morrison Planetarium the other day, where despite Whoopie Goldberg’s reassuring voice, I felt the usual claustrophobia at the limitlessness of space and yet the finity of our Sun. My daughter was scared most of the time, but we’re not exactly sure why.

It’s my birthday tomorrow and I’ve been wondering what my daughter, and generations to come, will find (and make) of these digital scribblings then of the past. My domain will have expired, and likely my WordPress blog underneath it too. Will there even be domains anymore? What of the Internet itself? All those pictures on Flickr? And What of Facebook? Will my Twitter archive be available?  What about those picture books we’ve printed from Flickr and the blogs we’ve turned into Blurb books? Seems like the newer things are, the shorter they last.  Will there be no hard-bound dusty spined volumes in our girl’s future? Perhaps nothing but an old Google cache — maybe even accessible by some odd unforeseen device such as a private air, space, and time machine… There’s a thought.

It’s odd to know that something entirely new – something inconceivable at present – will then exist to provide the history and context.  As we stand over the brink of one year and look into another, I marvel at how it is that sometimes we can’t really know — and sometimes we know better only in retrospect.

And on that note… I feel it’s impossible to wrap up the year 2009 on its last day, but after the passage of time I begin feel a little clearer about that other old year, 2008.

That was the year we lost Prop 8; we got married, and we also got banned from marrying.  It was the fuel for the worst of days in which I wish we never got up and fought so that people could be so legally ugly to us, and call us psychotic and worse, hurt us, and blame us right here in our homes.  It was perhaps the set-up that led to Question 1 in Maine, confusion in New York and New Jersey and elsewhere, and most profoundly atop much hard work, strife and sadness within the LGBT organizations while “Protect Marriage” rubs its hands in mean glee.

And then I shake my head and I see it there — a brief glimpse of the future, in the light by the sea where we got married.  I see the light in our family and in our friends’ eyes. I see the light in the field across which my daughter runs, stretching towards the brightness of the moving sun, and I know we’re never going to pack it all up and go home, because we LIVE HERE, in this warmth of love and kindness, together with our friends and family, in the light by the sea.  No longer is it the year of failure and loss, but it continues to be the year meanness loses and kindness follows the sun, as day follows night, every single moment of every single day.

I asked my daughter if she learned anything new after our visit to the stars of the Morrisson Planetarium. “I learned that the Sun is a star,” she said wonderously. Twinkle twinkle, little star. To my wife and child and family and friends and community: All the best wishes as one year switches to the next.  You light up my life.

And we begin again.

Transition

Today at work, a colleague originally from Russia told me the reason nobody uses those templates we spend lots of time creating is because they are temporal – from the root of “template” – never meant to be permanent. I responded with two or three feeble words in Russian — “spassiba” and the rest.

It’s with this in mind that I consider the word “transition” and attempt, in my mind, to make it into some sort of fun trip – like “transit” – to somewhere fun instead of through an awkward and perhaps scary time (unless you’re on Muni, which lately has taken to a more peculiar usage of the transitive form).

Nothing, we’re told, is permanent, but to my daughter, embarking in a couple of short weeks on a major transit from preschool to kindergarten, I want to represent nothing less than my permanence to her. If you’re scared, hold fast: it’s an exciting time and you will do so well, and Mama and Mommy will always be there for you.

As I even think this her body grows an inch, she skyrockets, learns more in one minute than I have all year, sees things anew, and has in fact permanently brightened my life.

There is no template I can create for this. In one single instant, flashing by, I understand life.

The Rhinoceroses -- in 2008