Confession time: As someone who calls himself Irish and obsesses over food, I have long envied the relationship my Italian friends have with their culinary heritage.
Those devotional St. Joseph’s Altars festooned with food are just the start. The rich family stories told through cooking, the interplay of generations and the inspiration of the old country — the feast day is a chance to recognize how much Italian flavor runs through their lives, and how much it gives the rest of us who live and eat and celebrate with them.
Then there’s St. Patrick’s Day, where food is basically a punch line.
It’s the cabbages thrown from parade floats in this town, or the more universal impulse to doctor up some cliche-ridden restaurant special and push the Jameson and Guinness for a few days.
But I believe the Irish identity can contribute something to the table as fundamental as red gravy, and the recipe for it has nothing to do with corned beef and cabbage.
It is the Irish compulsion for hospitality. Authentic hospitality is what you get when people stake their identity on making others happy. When those who count themselves Irish are at their best, this is precisely what they are doing.
New Orleans runs on hospitality. That term describes a job sector of hotels and restaurants and bars. But it’s also part of the culture that makes this town a great place to live and draws visitors to help fill those hotels and restaurants and bars. It comes from the people.
The settings and relationships can change, but hospitality is always about personality, respect and the generosity of time and spirit.
In my own family, we did not learn we were Irish through genealogy kits, and certainly not through cooking traditional Irish recipes. We learned we were Irish through interactions.
It meant being up for anything. It meant doing anything for your people (family, friends, colleagues, however you defined them). It meant not getting too high and mighty about yourself.
Why was this part of us? We were taught that all of it came from the involuntary influence of being Irish. As it happens, every one of those qualities is also part of making hospitality tick, whether experienced in the home, on the streets or in a business.
Of course, my family is also prone to chalk up lost tempers, long grudges and worse to “being Irish.” But if we’re not using holidays to uplift the best of what we can be, what good are they?
The compulsion toward hospitality is part of the Irish story, but it’s not an exclusive or guaranteed Irish trait.
And that’s the point. It is a cultural value, and cultural values can be learned, taught, improved, shared, lost and recovered, just like a treasured family recipe.
As a community that prides itself on a multifaceted culture, the Irish gift of hospitality deserves a toast. And if that makes anyone feel a little Irish even after the parades have rolled, that can only be a good thing.
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