Who was St. Patrick?

Henri provides some history—and a timely recipe

Photo Illustration by Carey Wilson

Though ordinarily a bit timid for parlor games, particularly those involving wagering, Henri has a favorite around this time of the year, a trivia question, over which he will occasionally bet a glass of wine: What nationality was St. Patrick? Naturally, most will say Irish, at which point Henri collects his purse.

The answer is English and Italian or, more accurately, English and Roman. Historians believe, based on St. Patrick’s own Confessions, that Ireland’s patron saint was born in England, the son of an English woman and Calpurnius, a member of the Roman ruling class. When the Roman empire began to collapse in the early fifth century, many Roman men returned to Rome to help attempt to stave off the invading Barbarians, leaving many women and children in England ripe for kidnapping by Celtic raiding parties, who brought the children back to Ireland as slaves—which is what happened to young Patrick.

At age 16, Patrick tells us, he was working as a shepherd in what is today County Mayo or Antrim, and then, at 23, he escaped his captors and returned to England, traveled south perhaps even as far as Rome, at some point being ordained a Catholic priest. He later returned to Ireland, from which, as legend has it, he drove away the snakes—that is, baptized and otherwise converted much of pagan Ireland. Though exactly when he died is uncertain, 461 has been popularly accepted as the year, and, of course, March 17 as the day, which has become a traditional Irish holiday.

What’s not traditionally Irish is the corned-beef-and-cabbage dinner associated with the holiday—nor is the Beaujolais with which Henri pairs his St. Patrick’s Day stew. The corned beef actually originated in America around the turn of the last century, when impoverished Irish immigrants living on New York City’s Lower East Side substituted beef for their traditional Irish bacon. More on the Beaujolais later. Though today, the brisket is “corned” with various spices, in the days before refrigeration it was preserved with coarse grains of salt, or “corn.”

Traditional Corned Beef and Cabbage
2- to 21/2-pound corned beef brisket*
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon whole black pepper
3 medium carrots, quartered lengthwise
2 medium red onions, cut into wedges
4 to 6 potatoes (new, red, Yukon, etc. ), quartered or cut into large chunks
1 head cabbage, cut into 6 wedges

*Often the brisket you buy in the grocery store comes with a packet of spices. If so, add them rather than the pepper and bay leaves.

Trim excess fat from meat. Place in an 8-12-quart pot or Dutch oven. Add enough water to cover meat. Add bay leaves and pepper. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer, covered, for about two hours, or until meat is almost tender. Add carrots and onions. Simmer, covered, for another 10 to 15 minutes. Add potatoes and cabbage. Cover and cook about 20 minutes more, or until vegetables and meat are tender. Discard bay leaves. To serve, slice the meat across the grain.

About the wine: Henri understands full well that that most prefer a pint of Guinness with their St. Patrick’s Day repast. However, he is committed to drinking wine whenever possible. Which is, in fact, always.

In addition to Beaujolais, Henri also likes a good Chianti or even a chenin blanc or dry German Riesling—the Irish holiday being one of the rare times he forgoes his beloved Bordeaux.

May the wind always be at your back. Sláinte!

Merci beaucoups to the countless flummoxed readers who e-mailed Henri about his bread recipe in his last column, which omitted the amount and type of yeast to use. Mea culpa, mea culpa. I hope you didn’t have any trouble getting yours to rise. For the recipe provided, the proper amount of yeast is two tablespoons, and Henri prefers Red Star Dry Active Yeast.