Father Blackie Ryan, the priest/gumshoe hero of a series of mystery novels by Andrew Greeley once claimed, "The Jews and the Irish do not share a heritage, but they do share a psychosis."
The Jews call it guilt. The Irish call it shame. It pretty much amounts to the same thing and can be blamed on religion. And parents. And a common history of oppression. And maybe the urge to revive dead languages; it's a proven fact that Hebrew school can induce psychotic breaks. (See "The Conversion of the Jews," by Philip Roth.)
With all respect to Father Blackie, Gut Check would like to point out that the Jews and the Irish share something else, something far more pleasant: corned beef.
The story of how this sharing came to be is almost as heartwarming as that of the first Thanksgiving. Most Irish immigrants to the U.S. were poor. They started looking around for some cheap meat. And lo! Their Jewish neighbors revealed to them the secret of their long survival: brisket brined and canned. And it was good. And cheap. (Wouldn't this make a terrific picture book?)
But then the story gets sad: The Irish didn't return the cuisine-sharing favor. This is why Irish-Americans get to celebrate their heritage with Guinness and whiskey while Jews have to suffer with Manischewitz, otherwise known as cough medicine.
In honor of St. Patrick's Day (today) and Purim (March 19-20, the Jews' excuse for late-winter alcoholic raucousness), Gut Check decided to explore the shared Irish-Jewish culinary tradition. We suppose we could have honored Leopold Bloom, the world's most famous Irish Jew, by eating kidneys, but...ewww.
The Contenders Gut Check is loath to admit this, but our only previous experience with Irish corned beef was the special St. Patrick's Day meal at our college dining hall. It came fresh from the steam table, bathed in a mysterious pink liquid and covered with globs of fat, with a side of smelly, wilted cabbage. At the time we thought we were scarred for life.
The corned beef at John D. McGurk's Irish Pub went a long way to relieve those terrible memories. We couldn't bring ourselves to order it with cabbage, though. Maybe someday we'll be braver.
Our corned beef came steaming hot, thick shreds of meat piled between two slices of toasted sourdough (we're not really a fan of rye bread, either, we admit in a small, tremulous voice) with a slice of melted Swiss cheese and a side of salty, peppery potato chips. It was so soft, so moist, we could practically feel it dissolving on our tongue, leaving a hint of bitter peppercorn.
We'd invited a colleague of Irish descent to confirm the quality of our McGurk's corned beef. Turns out he's not much of a connoisseur of Irish cuisine, but as soon as he had a bite of his sandwich, he was so happy, he started to sing along with with music over the sound system. "O fare thee well, my own true love!"
You can't really sing a happy Jewish song about corned beef. All our best songs are sad. (Which is maybe why we also excel at writing Christmas songs.) But under the table, Gut Check's feet tapped out a happy little dance, somewhere between a jig and a horah.
A couple of days later, we dropped in at Protzel's Delicatessen for the Jewish portion of the corned beef experience. Here we must admit another prejudice: We grew up eating Jewish corned beef. True, it was the Midwestern variety, a pale imitation of the gloriously brined beef we'd later have in New York and (weirdly) Berkeley, California, but we loved it anyway. As far as we're concerned, corned beef should always come thin-sliced.
OK, OK, there are good reasons (we have learned) why Irish beef is sliced thick. After receiving their great gift from their Jewish neighbors, the Irish immigrants decided to substitute the brined beef for their old cheap-ass staple, bacon, which, ideally, comes in thick slabs. (This also explains the presence of cabbage. And lack of mustard.) Along the way, the Irish also decided to use the slab of muscle across the top of the brisket, which gave it more texture, easier to appreciate when the slices are fat.
We get that. And still, we're can't get past our more than 30 years of expectations.
Protzel's corned beef fulfilled our Platonic ideal. The meat came in thin, juicy slices. We could taste hints of garlic mingled with brine and a little bit of pepper, less prominent than McGurk's peppercorn. It made us ridiculously happy, even though we were eating at our desk rather than a dark, picturesque pub. And even though the meat was cold. And our kaiser roll didn't come toasted. But at least they gave us pickles. It made us want to sing. (But we didn't, because we can't carry a tune.)
The Verdict Though Protzel's has the better corned beef, McGurk's has the better sandwich. It seems so wrong that we can't have everything we want. But what can you expect? Of course, this sort of attitude is what helped create that bond between the Jews and the Irish in the first place.