Yesterday I had a strong desire to consume some corned beef. On any other day, that might be unusual, but yesterday was St. Patrick's Day. It's one of my favorite holidays. No, I'm not Irish. I just relish the day that the world turns green. Growing up, it was a given that we'd eat corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's Day. My mother would usually buy several corned beef masses, a couple to be frozen for future use, and one to plop in the crockpot. My anticipation would build as the smell of cooking meat filled the house.
Last St. Paddy's Day, I attempted my own corned beef dinner. Now, I'm usually pretty good with new recipes, but that day I ran into several problems. First, I was working with a new (well, technically used) crockpot and was confounded when the water refused to come to a boil. What do you do when it won't boil? Does that mean the meat won't ever cook? Then there's the fact that corned beef is pink. How in the world do you tell if meat is cooked if it is pink even after it's done? You can smirk and tell me to use a meat thermometer, dummy, but no, I didn't have one. And without it, my wonderful hunk of corned beef turned into a paradoxically tough and soggy mass. After a few forced bites, I gave up in despair.
This year I don't have a crockpot (that one didn't last long), and I went to church and worked all day so I didn't even have time to make another attempt, but I still really wanted some corned beef. My brother and I tried to go to an Irish pub downtown. Surely they would have corned beef. Unfortunately, they were more about the beer than the corned beef. We squeezed our way into a white tent filled with people in leprechaun hats downing pints of beer. That's all well and good, but I was hungry. It didn't look like we'd be getting any food for at least an hour, so we left. Our next attempt was a place called Cafe Amsterdam. Although not Irish, they have (I hear) a variety of beer from all over Europe. We assumed they'd also have Ruebens. But they were closed.
Finally, we went to a non-descript place called Peggy's. Peggy's. But at least their special sign said they had corned beef. Our waitress showed us to our booth, and the first thing I noticed were the spider plants hanging in pots from the ceiling. It reminded me of my grandma's house. In fact, after looking around the diningroom, the whole place reminded me of grandma's house. There was blatantly fake wood panelling on the walls. Strange little knickknacks were tucked around the room in odd places. Brown, well-loved mugs sat upside down on our table. Everything was clean but a bit dark and worn. They offered a plethora of pies, even blackberry, my personal favorite. I gave in to temptation and had a slice. Delicious, but grandma's was better. Probably because she always put sugar on top that got all crispy while it baked.
The corned beef was fine, albeit a bit too well-cooked. Even that reminded me of grandma. She always made sure that the cow was very, very dead. We ate in a side booth, and I couldn't help noticing that we were the only customers in a booth. The other patrons sat at the horseshoe-shaped counter in the center of the room. I kept a quiet eye on them as I chewed my smushy carrots.
They were all men, mostly in their fifties and sixties, but a few forty-somethings. One thirty-something wandered in at the end. They didn't come in together and sat a few stools apart, but they had an easy camaraderie like they were in the same club. Boys only. One would wander out and another would take his place drinking coffee and gobbling pie.
I heard snatches of local gossip--a man shot a Walmart manager for not allowing his dog inside--and some good-natured ribbing. The waitresses, two ladies in their later years, were honorary members. They greeted and joked and poured coffee. It was a community.
I've always heard of the famed barbershop, the local male hangout where men bond and get a shave. I've of course never participated in such a phenomenon, but I did witness it from afar. There was a barbershop across the street from my old cafe. I enjoyed watching the men come and go. Grizzled old vets would stump in and out. Young fathers would herd their young offspring in the ever-swinging door. A wide assortment of men would come and go under the twirling red, blue and white pole. Some would visit every two weeks. I wanted to yell at some, don't do it! You'll have nothing left!
I liked to think that we had our own barbershop at the cafe. A group of men would crowd around a table early in the morning; on the sidewalk tables if it were nice, in the diningroom if it were cold. Most of them ordered black mugs of bottomless drip coffee and talked and drank the morning away. When I worked mornings, I was a supporting member, greeting them and making sure the airpots of coffee stayed full. It was a neverending battle.
There's something magical about a place like that. The community is tangible. No matter how we've morphed and evolved as a society, the campfire story hour is still alive. I think it's stayed with us because it's a necessary time of connection. It's never really about the shave or the pie, it's about the people.
But it would help if the pie had sugar on the crust.