by Ari Weinzweig
Margaret Johnson is a prolific author and a noted authority on both Irish cuisine and on the ways Irish culinary traditions are represented in the U.S. In advance of her trip to Ann Arbor to join us for a special evening of Irish-American supper and stories at the Roadhouse on March 19 we asked her a few questions about how she came to love the food of the Emerald Isle.
Ari: Tell me your background.
Margaret: I was born into a 3rd generation Irish family in Newburyport, Massachusetts, under the strong influence of a 1st generation grandmother. Always talk of “the old country” and the nostalgia that comes with it. Both maternal grandparents came from Ireland in 1898 (yes, 1898) and paternal grandparents even earlier. I’m 100% Irish-American, which explains my life-long interest in all-things-Irish. My first visit there wasn’t until I was 40 years old and I have been there close to 50 times since then.
Ari: What are some things that most Americans don’t know about Irish cooking?
Margaret: Maybe a better way to answer this is what they think they know about Irish cooking–bland, boring, “dreadful stuff my grandmother used to make!” That’s what I’ve always heard–mostly from people who’ve never traveled to Ireland. Irish-American food is all about corned beef and cabbage (which isn’t even Irish–don’t get me started on this subject!!), so most Irish-Americans really need to be educated about what the kind of food people in Ireland really eat–fresh, wonderful fish and meat, vegetables to-die-for, and a very sophisticated approach to cooking for the last 20-25 years.
Ari: We’ve been learning a lot about Irish butter. What’s your experience with it?
Margaret: Irish butter is absolutely the best! IF you consider that the taste of butter is a direct result of what the cows eat, it only makes sense that grass-fed, free-range cows would produce the best milk. You can almost taste Ireland itself when you spread it on toast, and it is a fantastic ingredient in baking.
Ari: Can you tell me about Irish-American cooking traditions?
Margaret: Well, the Irish have always been considered to be ‘plain’ cooks. Nothing fancy, so meat and potatoes figure prominently in Irish-American cooking. I think a lot of it has roots in the Famine years, when food was notoriously scarce. People learned to “make-do” with some meat and a few spuds, and that cooking tradition came with the millions who emigrated to America and their 44 million who claim Irish ancestry.
Ari: What else are we forgetting to ask you?
Margaret: Since I’m not a trained chef, how did I get interested in Irish food writing?
My interest in Irish food stemmed from my interest in Ireland. When I first traveled there, no one in America was writing anything positive about Irish food. Finally, in 1996, Bon Appetit devoted an entire issue to the subject of Ireland in a Special Collector’s Edition. That was my clue to forge ahead with my own research and have written seven Irish cookbooks to date (two published in Ireland in 1992 and 1995) and five by Chronicle Books. They are publishing a sixth next Spring called Tea and Crumpets.