Potatoes from the Heart

by Matt Benoit

Now that Mardi Gras is finally over, we as a nation can turn our attention towards that other famous March holiday. Yes, that’s right—find your best dagger and stab a Roman, because the Ides of March are come! Get that Caesar and bring on the croutons, because once the keg gets here it’ll be “et tu, par-tay,” and we’ll…okay, okay. We don’t really celebrate that one.

What we as Americans do celebrate, however, is St. Patrick’s Day, the quintessential Irish holiday. It honors Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland who, along with Danica Patrick and Patrick Stewart, drove all the “snakes” (corporate CEOs) out of the country (although to be fair, Danica did most of the driving).

In addition to snake wrangling, Saint Patrick also converted Ireland to Christianity, and March 17 is celebrated as his “feast day.” But of course, the actual meaning of St. Patrick’s Day tends to get lost in the American definition of the holiday, which is pretty much to get as wasted as possible.

That’s because we in America like to find nearly any occasion to drink, and holidays are no exception, even if we have no real connection to what’s being celebrated.

Mardi Gras? Beads and booze, baby! Cinco De Mayo? Cervaza, por favor! Team lost the Super Bowl? Throw away the bottle cap and cry! Team won the Super Bowl? Throw away the cap and celebrate! Australian Bank Holiday? Get loose and get loaded, sister!

In Ireland, St. Patty’s Day isn’t even really a drinking holiday. Well, all holidays in Ireland are drinking holidays, but this one is also a nationally-observed religious holiday, where many people attend church to honor St. Patrick.

In addition to church services, many people in Ireland celebrate by wearing sprigs of real Shamrock and greeting each other with the phrase “Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh,” which means “I’ll be glad when I can finally take all this green crap off.”

They also usually cook up a traditional St Patrick’s Day meal called “colcannon,” comprised of boiled potatoes and cabbage mashed together with butter. Then they sit down, look over the bounty they are about to consume and—realizing how gross the whole thing looks—decide to order Chinese take-out instead.

In the U.S., St. Patrick’s Day has been celebrated since the 1730s, when the first parade for the holiday took place in Boston. General George Washington even made note of it during the American Revolution, giving his soldiers a holiday at the Continental Army’s winter encampment in New Jersey on March 17, 1780.

Unfortunately, though, the “holiday” was mostly a bust, for by the time the soldiers had set up the beer kegs, they found them to be frozen solid, and subsequently many of the men gave up and froze to death. Washington wrote in his journal that the event was “a total buzzkill.”

Besides getting totally wasted on green beer, many people in the U.S. celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by eating corned beef and cabbage, talking like leprechauns, listening to U2, and wearing all kinds of green clothing. The “caveat” (or, as George W. Bush might say it, the “CUHveeAT”) to this tradition is that if you are observed not wearing green, you must be pinched by the person that observes your lack of festiveness.

Often, these green clothes include shirts with phrases like “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” on them, which is just one of many kinds of national pride message t-shirts available today. Other favorites include “Hug Me, I’m Haitian,” “Caress Me, I’m Croatian,” “Molest Me, I’m Mongolian,” “Fondle my Fondue, I’m French,” and of course, “Ask me for my immigration papers, I’m Mexican and live in Arizona.”

All told, there are festivals and parades in over a 100 U.S. cities celebrating the luck—and drunken boorishness—of the Irish. In Chicago, the Chicago River is dyed green, a tradition that’s gone on since 1962. The other 364 days of the year, the river is its normal, murky yellow-brown color.

At Whatcom, St. Patrick’s Day has been celebrated numerous ways over the years, including the legendary 1999 “Guinness incident” in which free pints of beer were accidently given away to students, staff, and faculty, subsequently resulting in several college administrators mud-wrestling each other in the parking lot.

Last year was more sedate, however, and featured a punch bowl, free baked potatoes, and Irish music. Perhaps the only thing missing was a showing of “Potatoes from the Heart,” the classic 1988 film about the Irish Potato Famine starring Nicole Kidman and featuring Paul Newman as the voice of Nell, the Irish spud that captures Kidman’s heart and, eventually, her stomach.

The film is remembered mostly for its dramatic last scene, where Kidman’s character has to make a heart-wrenching choice: Chives, or sour cream?

In that scene, she grabs the potato and strokes it gently, whispering to it as if it had ears. In the end, though, she still eats it, which—as long as Nicole Kidman is involved—isn’t an entirely bad way to die.

Newman won a Golden Globe for best actor in a motion picture drama for his role as the tuberous protagonist, but overall, the movie wasn’t very well received by critics, many of whom thought it was too saccharine. Or, at the very least, too starchy.

Out of all the aforementioned festivities, though, there is nothing I enjoy more on St. Patrick’s Day than going to McDonalds to enjoy that most Irish of meals: a shamrock shake and an order of fries.

The Shamrock Shake, a green-colored and mint-flavored concoction, has been a cult favorite for decades. Legend has it that McDonalds’ founder Ray Croc got the idea one St. Patrick’s Day night in 1969 after vomiting green beer and cabbage all over his new Persian office rug. It was that vomit which served as the genesis of an idea which today allows us to suck down so much minty goodness.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the milkshake, though, is in how McDonalds tried to promote it.

In the late 1970s or early 1980s, McDonalds apparently decided they needed to create a green, Irish-named character to market the Shamrock Shakes, and in what must have been some kind of liquor-fueled brain storm, they came up with—no joke here—“Uncle O’ Grimacey,” the poorly-drawn Irish relative of Grimace, the purple McDonalds character.

The problem was that Uncle O’ Grimacey not only closely resembled a giant green loofa carrying a cane, wearing a hat, and sporting some kind of four-leaf clover-filled vest, but also pretty much looked like he was drawn by a six-year-old child. Eventually, he was “phased out,” as in, “The McDon gave the order, pal—we’re gonna have to phase you out.”

So, this St. Patrick’s Day, however you enjoy it, have fun and try not to get “pinched” or “phased out,” if you know what I mean.

But if you do, I will gladly finish your Shamrock Shake for you.

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