Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Corned Beef, Philly Rolls and Chicken Vindaloo: A Diverse Foodie and Cultural Experience in the Big Onion

For those of you who may not know, I am currently applying to graduate programs (in/related to the anthropology of food). And given the hectic nature to the start of any academic year, I am particularly thankful for the moments in my schedule which open up and provide a window to actually visit and learn in person of the environment I may one day be a part of (hmm, quite fitting a reality for an ethnographer, no?). Such an opportunity occurred for this past weekend, the start of fall break for our students, and so I planned a trip to check out the University of Chicago; coincidentally, I learned through Facebook that Damian McGinty, one of Celtic Thunder's original five and co-winner of the first season of The Glee Project, would also be in Chicago as part of a larger celebration being hosted by the Irish American Heritage Center (IAHC). The event, iBAM! Chicago 2012: "A Journey towards Understanding through the Arts," was in its fourth year and offered within the context of peace and progress an amazing array and look into Ireland's cultural heritage and celebration specifically through books, art and music. Coupled with an opportunity to visit family and friends, I ended up deciding to make a big weekend out of my time in Chicago (2) and absorb all I could by way of culture and, of course, food.

from entreprises.ouest-france.fr
Before I continue, I should note that my initial attraction to Irish culture--if memory serves me correctly--was through language, more specifically accent. And from my language-heavy perspective this is still very much the case. More so, though, my continued appreciation for all that is Irish is rooted in other identifiers I hold to be particularly important, chiefly religion and ethnicity (which I'd extend to heritage) and of course food. Into the future, and again for those who don't know, my main research interest lies in the regional communities of France between France and her neighbors, of which Bretagne sits as a region of interest to me.

With this said, and following a great night of cooking and community building, I woke up very early (my first photo of the trip was taken at about 7am, an hour into my drive) on Saturday from more of a nap than actual sleep and made my way northwestward to Chicago. Quite fittingly it seemed, I was greeted with rain as I entered the city and arrived at the IAHC which already was bustling with attendees across generations, those from and outside of Chicago, folks direct from Ireland and everywhere in between. I had read prior that we would need to make some tough decisions this weekend and after reviewing again the schedule in person, this was most certainly the case. Concurrent session after concurrent session had read as intriguing online, but having to finally make the decisions in person as to which sessions to attend was tougher than expected!

Unintended, I experienced iBAM! in this acronym's order beginning my visit with "B" and checking out the exhibit on James Joyce before moving onto "A" and seeing Mark Ervine and Martin Lyons (direct from Belfast) at work on this year's set of peace murals.

From there, the focal point of my first day at the festival was with "M," where I met fellow Damian McGinty fan Larissa and attended the Q & A and follow-up meet and greet with Damian. (If interested, you can check out the complete Q & A session here.) As made evident throughout the festival, I'll note here, Damian [as alluded to at the top of this post, talk about an accent!] represents a breath of fresh air of humility and wisdom for this current generation, a proclaimed star whose reality is still very much rooted to his values and the lessons instilled to him by his family, faith and friends. In addition to the hours spent with fans after the Q & A session, Damian the following day continued to make time and energy for the additional lines the following evening. But outside of the music and television stardom for which he is especially known, my conversation with Larissa recognised that not only is Damian a positive role model but that he also represents a generation growing up in and with an Ireland that is living through the peace and reconciliation process.

In between readings presented by Stone Hearth Theatre of Bedtime Story by Sean O'Casey and The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde being performed at the festival (both of which were excellent, by the way) I went to the main floor and listened to some live music as I thoroughly enjoyed my first foodie experience on this Chicago trip: the corned beef sandwich on rye, at the recommendation of one of the servers. I must admit that I wasn't sure what to expect when I saw the corned beef come out of an individualised plastic baggy of sorts but intentional or otherwise, this was incredibly delicious (or I was just really hungry, though I'm pretty sure it was the former). The reserved liquid encased with the corned beef seemed to help it retain its flavour and keep it moist while remaining warm in the chafing dish; certainly any other preparation could dry out the meat. Topped with a spicy Irish mustard, the corned beef melted in my mouth as, in some respect, I consumed a part of Irish culinary history. (In addition, check this out as we consider its place in the context of the Irish experience in America. And click here to revisit my own success with corned beef this past St. Patrick's Day weekend.)

After a first long day at the Center, I met up with Eric, a fellow Albion Brit and my host for the weekend. Over Philadelphia rolls and prosciutto rolls (which both seemed to parallel the other in a surf and turf kind of way in terms of construction and texture) at The Sitdown Cafe & Sushi Bar, we caught up after what's felt like years (though in reality, it's been but a handful of months) before heading back to his apartment where I met his roommate and then improvised a version of Friday's Portuguese one-pot chicken dish.

From Eric's apartment on Sunday, I drove back to the IAHC (hyuu, I got quite a bit of practice in Chicago driving--and parking--this past weekend) for a Mass which began in Gaelic. As I waited for the service to begin, there was a definite and undeniable presence of religion as central to Irish identity (at least of those gathered), if not at least a strong Catholic presence across national boundaries and heritage. Whether as a continued matter of contention or a means of bringing communities and encouraging dialogue and peace, religion--especially given the context of Ireland--was and continues to remain an important character in the identity of the Emerald Isle and the immigrant exprerience. In this light, I found that as a symbol not too far distant from food and language, relgious practice whatever form it may take helps to foster a community and like food provides a context for preserving linguistic identity (if only in limited instances). Of note, the icon of the patron saint of Derry, Saint Columba of Iona (also known as Columkill, "the dove of the Church") was set before the altar. As the priest extolled, Derry-Londonderry, which was a focal point of celebration at this year's iBAM! festival, is being celebrated next year as the U.K.'s first City of Culture; it represents a living case study of faith and a center for peace, a reconciliatoin of different cultures, background and ways of looking at the world, a city which seeks to bring the disenfranchised (and those who have become disenfranchised) into the peace building process.

After Mass, I joined others in the dining area of the IAHC and enjoyed the Irish-theme breakfast provided by Harrington's Catering & Deli (the same folks from whom I bought the corned beef sandwich). As I enjoyed the scrambled eggs with sautéed tomatoes, white and black pudding, sausage, ham and beans, and roasted potatoes, I met more of the attendees including Sharon and Sheila (who had sung as part of the Mass choir), and iBAM! photographer Dominick who quite wittingly described himself as "American by birth, Italian by blood, Irish by friendship and Scottish by single malt."

As I finished my breakfast, I met (sort of again) Chris, also a Damian fan who had been at the Q & A session. After watching and listening to excerpts from Music Mad: How Cihef O'Neill Saved the Soul of Ireland, Chris and I headed up to the Library where she looked into her family genealogy before we sat in on a great presentation by author Conor Cunneen who read from his book of limericks and cultural notes, For the Love of Being Irish

Following a brief stop to the introduction of a panel on the new peace story of Derry-Londonderry, we settled back on the main level to hear a panel discussion titled "Historical Fiction vs History." A quite compelling session, moderator John Gleeson did a wonderful job with panelists Dennis Foley, Mary Pat Kelly, Morgan Llwelyn (who was honoured by iBAM! for her outstanding contributions to literature) and Maurice Fitzpatrick (who had earlier shown his documentary, The Boys of St. Columb's, prior to Damian's Q & A). Of the many profound statements they had shared, a few which particularly stuck out revolved around the role of the historian as judge and the novelist as the one who must understand; the ancestor's life being just as important as that of kings an dpresidents; history as arguably an agreed upon fiction; that good historical fiction writing aims to include "eye-witnesses" without changing history; and where spiritualism begins where religion ends, historical fiction begins where history ends.

By this point in the day, I had a bit of a break before needing to head back to the auditorium for the evening's concert featuring Phil Coulter. And so, I headed over to a room filled with authors and their books. To my excitement, I found a book on food (should that be a surprise?) titled Midwest Sweet Baking History: Delectable Classics around Lake Michigan. Written by Jenny Lewis in part as a cookbook, the immediate draws were for me its focus on Lake Michigan culinary history and the sociohistorical narrative that accompanied it. From food in a book, I went back to the main hall and among the many booths settled on one run by Galway Bakers. A true symbol of family fare and tradition, Galway Bakers is comprised of a trio of sisters from Galway (a sister city of Chicago) who grew up learning their trade from their mother and grandmother. Among the many breads and sweets available, I went with two cakes (yummm) to bring back with me to Granville: the first was a pineapple zucchini cake (hooked on the fact that the zucchini came directly from their vegetable garden) and the second was a cake made with Guinness, Jameson and Bailey's (hooked, well... because it's a chocolate cake, among other reasons). After my venture through the hall of booths, I met a kind attendee and IAHC member who invited me to join her table as she waited for her husband and friends to return; as we talked and I tried "Irish pop" which turned out to be a type of orange soda (somewhere between Orangina and Sunkist), we also listened to a group known as Brocach Session which, it's important to note, is not a band.

To conclude my visit to the IACH and participation in this year's iBAM! festival, one final event finally approached: the Phil Coulter concert as mentioned to above. Phil Coulter, honoured this year by iBAM! for his outstanding contributions to music has earned a whole host of awards and was chiefly responsible for pulling together great talent about 5-6 years ago in the form of Celtic Thunder. As I've read in recent comments through Facebook, YouTube and the like, I very much appreciated the stories that went along with each of the songs and monologues Phil performed. In so doing, he made connections between music and memory, just as much as he made meaning for and connected with the audience. Additionally, I enjoyed the humbleness and pride he exhibited, especially when singing for Ireland and the immigrant experience, and when he invited his wife Geraldine Brannigan and Celtic Thunder original memeber Damian. A truly great way to end this entire experience at the IAHC, Phil, with the help of Geraldine and Damian, led the crowd on a group rendition of "Steal Away" (linked above). To view other videos I recorded throughout the concert, you can visit my YouTube channel here

After a few slices of pizza following a long day at the IAHC, and a final photo at the Center taken with Phil, I met up with one of my godmothers, Marilou, for a pseudo late night dinner at a Thai restaurant she often visits after work, Siam Cafe(?). In contrast to the heavier food fare I had been eating, the dishes set before us--from the spring and egg rolls to the chicken satay to the pad thai--were certainly lighter and more colourful in appearance. And the quick and friendly service added to a positive experience there, as well. With an unquestionably full stomach, I made my way back to Eric's place for the night and caught up on sleep, as I geared up for the final third of my visit to Chicago.

On my third and final day of the trip, I dug deep to find the motivation necessary to wake up in time to get to my car before the parking meters were put into effect. And without a doubt breakfast at Café 53 which Eric was (and still is) convinced makes the greatest pastries, especially vegan scones, certainly helped. This said, we headed over to Café 53 where a wonderfully chocolatey chocolate chip muffin and a morning mocha both called out to me.

Soon after parting our ways, I finally headed over to UChicago's campus, this visit of which initially prompted my trip to Chicago. And after what felt like hours (but was more so half an hour), I signed up for a graduate tour for later that afternoon, and roamed around campus before meeting with Anne, the anthropology academic assistant and then a first-year anthropology grad student, Hannah.

Nearing lunchtime, I went over to the Philosophy Department to meet up with Melody, a former student group advisor while I was a senior at Albion; for lunch, we went over to the business school and its cafeteria where Melody and I tasted their Indian cuisine as I learned about UChicago and living in the city from her perspective. As pictured above, I got the spicy chicken vindaloo and gobi masala (roasted cauliflower) which were both of particularly great quality (especially the seasoning) given the fact it was technically "cafeteria food." After lunch, I met with two professors from the Anthropology Department before going on a graduate school tour and rounding off my diverse list of informants with a visit to UChicago's Office of Multi-Cultural Student Affairs.

As I made my way back home, I realised that my visit to Chicago gave me many good reasons to pause and imagine the environment and future where I see myself, just as much as I should continue to think critically of my academic goals and the challenges that lay ahead. On another level, I found my visit to be in itself reflective of the anthropological kind of lifestyle I've envisioned these past few years, one which provides many opportunities to grow, live and learn, through travel, research and food. For my complete photo album from my weekend in Chicago, click here.

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