Soda Bread and Mint Tea: Appreciating My Mexican/Irish Heritage
By Gilda Claudine on March 17, 2011
Remember those old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercials? Two unsuspecting, wholesome types come from two different directions, bump into each other on a street corner, and cry out “Hey, you got chocolate in my peanut butter!” And the other would say “You got peanut butter in my chocolate!” Then, of course, each would take a taste and the voiceover talent would announce “Two great tastes that taste great together!”
I imagine the day I was born and the conversation between my parents going something like this:
"You got Irish in my Mexican!"
"You got Mexican in my Irish!"
Well, you get the idea.
All kidding aside, I’ve spent countless hours contemplating ways to synthesize and celebrate my mixed heritage. What I didn't know growing up is that the Mexican and the Irish possess a great affinity for each other, a mutual appreciation that is rooted in their respective national identities. Both societies are predominately Catholic and over the years have suffered monumental indignities at the hands of those in political power.
Such commonalities are often cited as the bases for the desertion of Irish soldiers from the U.S. Army during the Mexican-American War in the mid-19th century. The San Patricios, as they were known, were largely comprised of Irish immigrants who joined forces with General Antonio López de Santa Anna to fight with Mexico against the United States. Whether the Irish deserted because they were discriminated against by the mostly Protestant U.S. Army or because General Santa Anna bought the Irish soldiers' fidelity is up for debate. Ultimately, the U.S. Army captured and courtmartialed the men, ordering several of them to die by hanging. After the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848, the remaining San Patricios were released and most remained in Mexico. Though the San Patricio battalions lost in the end, the Mexicans remember them as Mexican war heros.
Other Irish settled in Mexico throughout the years, of course, including William Lamport whose life and adventures in Mexico earned him the famous moniker "El Zorro." Many more lesser-known Irish citizens emigrated to the United States and Mexico during the Great Potato Famine of 1845, ensuring the assimilation of Irish culture and values, mostly in America. But the Irish who settled in Mexico also left their cultural imprint.
The surname O'Brian generations later became Obregón, for example, and the Mexican-Irish artist Juan O'Gorman "produced some of the first examples of functionalist architecture in Mexico." (See Rose Mary Salum's The Irish Presence in Mexico)
In the 1960s, Cesar Chavez and Robert F. Kennedy formed mutually beneficial political alliances, their admiration for one another grounded in shared cultural and family values. More recently, Irish writers and musicians, whose memories of a militarized Northern Ireland in the 1980s are still fresh, have united to support Mexican journalists, many of whom have risked their lives to cover Mexico's war on drugs. But my favorite interplay between the two cultures lies in the stirring rhythms and soulful melodies of Mexican and Irish folk music. The Chieftains 2010 release, San Patricio with Ry Cooder, Linda Ronstadt, Los Tigres del Norte, Los Cenzotles and many others, is but one example.
See, two great cultures that make sense together! Here's another something Mexic-ish to enjoy this St. Paddy's Day.
2 cups flour
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup butter
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup of currants (optional)
Fresh mint (for the tea)
Preparation: Preheat oven at 375 degree. Sift the dry ingredients.
Add the butter. Add buttermilk and blend until the mixture becomes a sticky ball.
Dust hands and surface with flour and knead for 10 minutes. Put round ball on greased baking sheet (I used an enamel baking dish) and make a cross approximately 1/2 inch deep on the loaf. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes. Test for doneness with a wood toothpick or skewer.
(Optional: Beat one egg yoke with a tablespoon of water and brush on top of the loaf before baking.) And according to my father, “If you need to add fruit, add currants not raisins! Most importantly, when kneading, think of all the people who did this before you and especially the one who gave you this recipe. This is my Grannie’s recipe given to me by your Aunt Lynn.”
The tea: The key is to buy fresh mint. Boil approximately 4 cups of water in a pot. After the water comes to a boil, turn off the heat and place about ten sprigs of mint into the water. Cover for about 5 minutes to infuse the water. The tea is done once the water has turned a light shade of green. The mint leaves may be strained from the tea or a few may be left in the cup. Add sugar or honey, milk or cream to taste.
Gilda Claudine Karasik is a lawyer and writer, making her way in the world of freelance.