Sláinte! It’s Saint Patrick’s Day.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may know that March 17 is one of the three days of the year I proudly proclaim myself Irish by bullshit, the other two being February 2 (James Joyce’s birthday) and June 16 (Bloomsday).
It may seem I’m trying too hard, but my wife claims a slice of Irish heritage and therefore of course so does my son. I’m outnumbered and I have to try this hard just to keep up. So we’ve got a lot planned in the Zyme Lord house. Here’s how we’re celebrating this year, aside from the obvious ways (i.e., wearing green and drinking something fermented):
My wife is preparing a beef-and-stout stew with turnips, rutabagas and carrots, served alongside cabbage sautéed with bacon and garlic. Props to the slow cooker – and the wife – for making it happen.
As an appetizer, we’ll make our way through at least one of the two loaves of stout soda bread I baked last night. I stayed up late to do it, but judging by the way the kitchen smells today it will be worth the loss of sleep. We’ve also got some aged Irish cheddar cheese with Oscar Wilde’s face on it (on the label, not on the cheese) to go with it.
We’re rapidly approaching the end of the current keg of Anna Livia Irish Stout. We’ll either empty it today or have fun trying.
Just before bed, I’ll toast to my faux Irish heritage with a dram of Jameson Distillery Reserve. It’s only available from the Jameson visitor’s center in Dublin, so I’ve been saving mine for special occasions. My eleven-month-old son’s first Saint Patrick’s Day certainly qualifies.
Speaking of the little leprechaun, he’s sporting his shamrock onesie and learning how to rock out to the Pogues.
And the Gaelic fun won’t end at midnight. Yesterday I bottled entry samples of Anna Livia Irish Stout and another Celtic-inspired beer (Thane McCrundle’s Wee Heavy) for the Celtic Brew Off homebrew competition in Arlington, Texas in April. I’m filling out the entry paperwork today. Anyone got a four-leaf clover to send me for good luck?
Finally, because the Anna Livia stout is almost gone and the wife has expressed some trepidation about facing an entire month without it, I’m already making plans for the next batch. Fortunately I have all the ingredients on hand except the yeast, so I’ll work it into the pipeline as soon as I can.
After all this is over – though the soda bread may well last through the week – I’ll go back to being Italian until June 16.
Well, okay, I might let myself be Scottish by bullshit for a weekend in early May for the Texas Scottish Festival and Highland Games, but other than that …
I was blue mouldy for the want of that pint. – unnamed narrator, “Cyclops” episode of Ulysses
June 16, 2013 was Father's Day, the first I celebrated as a father myself, thanks to the arrival of this guy:
His mother insisted on taking me to brunch at Banger's Sausage House & Beer Garden, one of my favorite beer spots in Austin. Although I balked at first – as much as I love being a father, I'd just as soon celebrate in my own quiet way and not have anyone make a fuss over me – I agreed, and started my day with a Stone Double Dry Hopped Ruination IPA and then a Dogfish Head Sixty-One (also known as 61 Minute IPA – a less-than-accurate moniker that implies more hops than can be detected in this blend of IPA and Syrah grape must). The beers were great, and the food was good too even though Banger's was out of the one thing on the menu I really wanted: the “Irishman's Hangover Cure” – basically an English breakfast with black and white pudding (US readers: despite the name, those are sausages). A mighty meal, I'm sure, but unavailable on account of a shortage of black pudding (how a hypertrendy brew-and-grub spot in downtown Austin runs out of blood sausage is beyond me, but okay). I settled for an elevated Eggs Benedict instead, a dish that has never disappointed me.
It really was a shame about missing out on that Irish breakfast, though, because June 16 was also Bloomsday to fans of Irish novelist James Joyce and his magnum opus Ulysses. Observed each year on the anniversary of the date the novel took place – June 16, 1904 – it's a spectacle in Joyce's native Dublin, where participants and spectators don boater hats, eat kidneys, and participate in readings, re-enactments, and other themed events at parks, pubs, museums and locations mentioned in the novel. We've celebrated Bloomsday in my house for the last four years with Irish food (no kidneys, thanks) and stout by pints, with one exception in 2011 when we actually went to Dublin for it.
Readers who remember my St. Patrick's Day post may recall that Bloomsday is one of the three days a year that I consider myself “Irish by bullshit”, and I toast to Joyce with at least one pint of Guinness and a Jameson nightcap. Granted, although Bloomsday is big in Dublin and recognized in a handful of American cities, it doesn't have a reputation as a hardcore Irish drinking occasion like St. Paddy's or your average Irish funeral. It's seen as more of a sophisticated affair. In Dublin two years ago, I got the impression that Dubliners view it as a society event. Most of the costumed participants looked like upper-class types, the cream of Dublin's social/academic elite doing their duty for an event that is important to the city, regardless of whether any of them have any meaningful personal connection to Joyce's work. Most of them were sipping wine.
Wine. Irish men and women in pubs in the city where Guinness and Jameson were born, gathered to celebrate an Irish cultural hero, and they were drinking … wine. A nod to protagonist Leopold Bloom ordering a glass of red wine at Davy Byrne's pub for his afternoon tipple in the “Lestrygonians” episode of Ulysses? Perhaps, but although I did see a few glasses of red in Bloomsdayers' hands that day, most of them were drinking white.
Snooty? Maybe. Pretentious? Most likely. But don't be put off by that, or by the fact that your English-major roommate in college used to drag you to bars on Thursday nights and forced you to listen to him debate his friends on the topic of James Joyce's work using words like ineluctable and dropping references to secondary sources like the most boring deleted scene from Good Will Hunting. Never mind all that. Ulysses is a damned entertaining book full of laugh-out-loud hilarious moments. It's a great read to enjoy while drinking and is full of interesting details about the life of the turn-of-the-century urban Irishman drinker. It contains several references to “Guinness's porter” (a description that may confuse today's beer geeks, until we realize that stout was considered a substyle of porter until the 20th Century). There's an extended sequence of drunken hallucination in a brothel written as a play script, complete with cross-dressing, and a memorable scene of a sexy barmaid working the … ahem … “polished knob” of a tap handle with delicate hands.
Oh yeah, that's the other thing. Ulysses is full of dick and fart jokes. In my opinion, that makes it perfect for dads everywhere. Why not combine it with Father's Day? So I ended my day with a miniature Irish feast for Bloomsday.
Not long after Lucian's birth, I kegged an Irish-style dry stout that I brewed in late March (first discussed in the above St. Patrick's Day post) and named it Anna Livia Dry Stout in honor of a character from another Joyce novel, Finnegans Wake. The recipe for the brew can be found here in my new recipes section. I brewed the stout as a substitute for Guinness specifically for this occasion, and it didn't disappoint: deep black and roasty, dry but with a touch of sweetness in the middle and a robust mouthfeel that I found wanting the last time I drank canned Guinness Draught. Best of all, Anna Livia came in at a very sessionable 4% ABV. The only thing that was lacking was the trademark tang that Guinness achieves by adding a little bit of soured beer to each batch. The next time I make it, I'll try to recreate that effect by adding a little lactic acid to the wort. Sure, it's cheating and I don't generally like to add extraneous ingredients, but seeing as how the alternative would be to use sour beer and risk infecting my good equipment, I think I can make an exception.
To go with the stout, we had cabbage braised in the same stout with bacon, and a selection of cheeses: Irish cheddar, Gorgonzola (in honor of Leopold Bloom's Gorgonzola sandwich from Davy Byrne's), and English Red Leicester (not a Ulysses reference but great cheddarish cheese that reminds me of my time in the British Isles).
I also baked a raisin-free soda bread from this recipe from IslandVittles.com. Of course, I substituted Anna Livia for the Guinness. Though I've been baking bread for a couple of months now, this was my first soda bread. It was so good I will be making it again: crumbly and sweet, an excellent counterpart to the Gorgonzola. And the leftover slices were spectacular with butter and honey a day later.
It was a great way to spend a first Father's Day, and I got off light in that I was able to divert much of the fuss away from myself and onto one of my favorite annual geek observances. It also gave me a great excuse to brew something special for the occasion, something I'd love to do again in the future. But with Father's Day falling the day before Bloomsday next year, I think I'm going to need a new angle if I want to do a Father's Day brew.
Anyone have any Father's Day brews they'd like to share the recipe for? I need your ideas! Only 364 days left to plan.
On April 9, my son Lucian was born.
Far be it from me to claim I’m an expert on the subject after doing it once, but the months leading up to the birth of a first child are a whirlwind. Preparing for the birth is like a new hobby, one that fills only a weekend or two per month early on, but quickly escalates to every weekend and eventually every day. Months pass quickly, measured in weeks between ultrasounds, the impending due date consuming more time and mental bandwidth as the trimesters tick by. There’s a nursery to paint. Furniture to pick out and assemble. Classes to take. Bags to pack for the hospital. As our due date of April 22 approached, the to-do list kept getting longer, and we sacrificed other pursuits – social life, writing, movie night – in an attempt to reach our goal of being “ready” by April 1 so we could a) leave for the hospital at a moment’s notice, and b) relax and enjoy the last few weeks of our pre-parental life before we took the big plunge.
I also prepared a number of activities to “keep me busy” during my four weeks off from work. I formulated a couple of special homebrew recipes: ready to brew. Made substantial progress on mapping out the plot of my novel: ready to draft. Worked with my screenwriting partners to complete the first draft of a feature screenplay: ready to edit. And I stocked up on DVDs and books to watch/read in my downtime.
I’ll pause here to give a moment to my readers who are experienced parents. Please, laugh derisively at my naive delusion.
By April 1, we were a little behind schedule on the prep-work but not too far behind. We were all ready to buckle down and get it done in time for April 22. Then suddenly, boom. Lucian came 13 days early, smacking me in the face with a +2 spiked club of reality. I’m still shaking my head, trying to clear the ring of stars and chirping birds circling me.
It’s amazing how quickly I transformed from “me” into this new version of me that exists primarily to serve as one half of a round-the-clock life support system for another human being. In my rare contemplative moments, I think back to those last frantic weeks of expectancy with nostalgia, like memories of a relaxing vacation.
Don’t get me wrong. The instant I first laid eyes on my son in the delivery room, a profound and inexplicable emotion anchored in my psyche immediately. I was literally overwhelmed, almost hyperventilating as my brain refused to believe what my heart felt – that there was a new person on this planet, that I had co-created him and would co-author his formative years, and that I loved him in a way I never realized was possible. I wouldn’t trade that feeling for anything, and I’m glad he decided to come 13 days early. Someday, many years from now when our days together are numbered, I’ll look back and be thankful for the extra time.
But with all that said, the last nine days have challenged my naive assumptions of what raising a newborn would be like. That stack of things to “keep me busy”? Collecting dust. I haven’t read anything that’s not baby-related. I haven’t written (until now). I’ve watched a little TV, but seeing as how it takes 4 hours to get through a single episode of Game of Thrones or Mad Men, I don’t think I’ll be making much headway on that stack of DVDs. And as for the pipe dream of scraping together eight consecutive hours to brew beer, well, I barely even have time to drink a beer.
But I dove in head first, learning the right way for each new paternal task with zeal. Every time I tried something new, I looked it up in at least two baby books and online to see if I was doing it right (I’m not bragging; it was a crutch and a hindrance). I filled my head with so much information it eventually just started dripping out of my ears unused. I soon got overwhelmed and started making mistakes: confusing Lucian’s hunger cry for his diaper cry, chilling his sensitive butt with a frigid baby wipe, failing to shield his eyes from the sun for every microsecond outdoors. Every mistake left me feeling sick to my stomach and afraid of the next mistake, certain the baby wouldn’t survive two weeks in my care. What had I gotten myself into? How stupid was I to make him cry for literally hours in the middle of the night, while I racked my brain trying to figure out what was wrong? I was clueless, in over my head. The worst father in the world. I almost welcomed the idea of Texas Child Protective Services busting down the door of my house at 4:00 am, declaring me unfit for parenthood, and taking Lucian away to someone else who could raise him right. Unlike me.
And then one night, four or five days ago but a lifetime away, was my dark night of the soul. Listening to the earsplitting (I now know what this word means) cry of my frustrated newborn, terrified that any new minute on the clock might mark the breaking point for this poor innocent creature mistakenly entrusted to my ignorant care, I wished only that I could be somewhere else. Anywhere, anywhen, back in time, off in space, a place with bright sun and serene air and good ale on tap.
The thought of beer, coupled with a crippling fear of failure, triggered memories. I remembered my first forays into homebrewing, those exciting but terrifying new days filled with similar fear and self-doubt.
For my first few homebrew batches, I sought validation for every choice I made online and in the pages of the beginner books written by Charlie Papazian and John Palmer. Was I mixing the extract and water enough? Was I cleaning my steeping bag the right way? Were plastic carboys really fine, or was I going to oxidize my brew? Was I wasting my time, and would my beer end up tasting terrible? Was I the worst brewer ever, and should I just give up?
But I wasn’t, and I shouldn’t, and I wasn’t wasting my time. I was learning on the job. It was a painful, arduous process that was nonetheless absolutely necessary. The beer wasn’t perfect, but it was far from terrible. And as I got more and more experience, I realized that so much of homebrewing was not about right vs. wrong, but just about choices. I learned to be comfortable with the choices I made, knowing they were the right choices for me – at least at the time – and for nurturing the best possible beer out of my homebrew setup. I learned to have faith that even if I made little mistakes that needed to be corrected or even apologized for, the beer would be fine.
An epiphany began to blossom in my head. I looked down at my screaming, red-faced infant son and smiled. I remembered Charlie Papazian’s oft-quoted advice to new homebrewers: Relax. Don’t worry. Have a homebrew. And I did.
Well, I didn’t have the homebrew until the next day, but you get the idea. As I drank that homebrew, I reflected on how raising a newborn is not entirely different from homebrewing. Sure, it’s a much bigger commitment and the stakes are waaaay higher. But it can be approached in the same way.
Relax. Don’t worry. Enjoy your child.
Nine days in, I’m still making mistakes and I’m still stressed out – sleep deprivation will do that to you. But amazingly, I’m starting to get the hang of it. I can tell the difference between a hunger cry and a diaper cry. I’m guessing with sufficient accuracy when Lucian needs feeding or changing, and when he just wants to suck on a finger or listen to white noise. I’m starting to feel like I sort of know what I’m doing when it comes to the basics, and I’m enjoying experimenting as I figure out how to parent more efficiently. I feel myself on the verge of a stage of parenthood analogous to being an intermediate brewer: straying from established recipes with my own adjuncts and flavors, controlling variables in my own way, putting my own twist on process and technique. And I realize the beginning wasn’t so bad. It didn’t take long at all.
Someday, though I’m sure it’s a long way away, I’ll level up to advanced, “all grain” parenting. I’ll have enough knowledge and experience to have my own ideas about how to make my child happy. I’ll be the one dispensing advice and recommendations to my friends who become parents after me. I’ll still screw up, of course. But with the wisdom of experience behind me, I’ll view my mistakes as something constructive; to paraphrase James Joyce, “portals of discovery”. I’ll screw up and fix it and clean up and apologize and analyze and solve the problem to become a better parent in the future.
And someday, I’ll pass that knowledge on to my son, perhaps over a pint of a well-crafted homebrew that he may someday brew himself.
Welcome to life, Lucian. For now, keep doing what you’re doing. Cry if you have to, but sleep when you can. You’ll need your rest. Brewing is hard work, and we’ll be doing it together soon.
March is nearly over, and I haven’t blogged for a while. I just finished two consecutive restless weeks that left little time for writing: first a trip to California for my day job, and then several days of cleaning, organizing and baby-gear-assembling at the behest of my wife Lisa, who has become a prolific nester in the last weeks of her pregnancy. But if one event could pull me out of my unintended hiatus, it would be that annual celebration of all things Irish and all things alcoholic: St. Patrick’s Day.
I don’t have any Irish ancestry that I’m aware of, though there are gaps in my family tree that make it possible. But I do love all things Gaelic. Green is my favorite color. The Pogues are in heavy rotation on my iPod. James Joyce is one of my favorite authors. There’s even that whole “being named Shawn” thing. So I’m claiming partial Irish heritage until someone presents me with a notarized document proving I’m not. I call it being “Irish by bullshit,” but it is sincere bullshit.
While St. Patrick’s Day is most people’s favorite day of the year to be Irish by bullshit, for me it’s third behind June 16 (Bloomsday, the celebration of James Joyce’s Ulysses) and February 2 (Joyce’s birthday, and coincidentally the day after mine). On those days, it’s possible to find a seat in an Irish pub in Austin if I want to. On St. Pat’s, however, it ain’t. Having an aversion to drunken crowds slurring “Whiskey in the Jar”, I prefer to do my celebrating at home.
So Lisa cooked lamb-and-Guinness stew with potatoes, and sautéed cabbage on the side. The fact that she considered cooking an Irish-themed dish at all, after I once asked her to make pork kidneys for breakfast on Bloomsday, was surprising enough. But there were more surprises in store.
We bought a four-pack of Guinness Draught. She only needed one can for the stew, so that left three for me to “dispose of” without her help, on account of the little leprechaun in her belly. So I took one – er, three – for the team and drank them.
When I visited Dublin in June 2011, I drank draft Guinness constantly, because it was astoundingly delicious in the city of its birth. But back home, with homebrew and so many American craft brews available, it just doesn’t rise high enough on my list to seek it out, and I hadn’t had one since Bloomsday 2012. It’s become for me a special-occasion beer, for my “Irish days,” because it figures so heavily in the Irish culture I’m celebrating.
Let me stop you before you protest. I’ve heard the counterarguments and the accusations of Irish stereotyping. I’ve heard the assertion that Guinness is not Irish and never has been. I’ve read that it’s not popular among today’s hip Dubliners, who prefer imported lagers and craft beer. I know that its British parent company Diageo has taken a lot of criticism – most of it probably deserved – from craft beer circles. But those are modern complaints.
Maybe my outsider’s perspective is skewed, but I’ve studied Irish history. I’ve read Irish authors. I’ve listened to traditional Irish music, and I have noticed that Guinness has been celebrated in Irish culture for centuries. It’s part of Ireland’s history, and its identity as the Irish beer seems, for better or worse, to be here to stay. And I don’t mind, because I’ve always liked it.
So imagine my surprise when I poured one on March 17 and found myself disappointed at its complete lack of flavor.
I remember enjoying it last June. It seems preposterous that my taste buds could have changed so much in nine months (he said, as his pregnant wife listened in annoyed disbelief). But I’ve had a lot of great beers over the last year, many of them full of aggressive hops or intensely rich malts. Maybe I’ve desensitized my palate to the relatively tame Guinness. Whatever the reason, it tasted like nothing. No roast flavor, no sourness, no booziness. It was lacking in every way, and made me a little sad.
Maybe it was just a bad batch, but with Bloomsday coming up, I’m not taking any chances. So I’m putting my Irish-by-bullshit status to the test in a brew-off against the Bubblin’ from Dublin, with myself as judge. If I can brew my own dry stout that puts me more in the mood for a James Joyce reading than the venerable black from St. James’s Gate, maybe I can call myself worthy of that imaginary Irish heritage after all.
In the meantime, I’m sorry, Guinness, but I think we need a break from each other. It’s not you, it’s me. My palate craves a challenge. You really are a well-made beer, and lots of people are going to want to drink you, but I just need a little … more. More what? I don’t know, more roasted barley, maybe a little more alcohol. Just … more. A stouter stout.
But I promise, next time I’m in Dublin, we’ll spend lots of time together. Until then, sláinte, baby.