Spoons and Bowls Circling the Pot

This article was published in the November 2014 issue of the Irish American News under the “Guilty Pleasures” column.

For many Irish Americans, life in the Midwest typically means periodic visits from family members living on the Emerald Isle. In between those visits, however, a sense of isolation from loved ones becomes more and more acute, and a forlorn feeling starts to set in. We long to be closer, to have family geographically near.

I wish I could pick up the phone and invite my in-laws or parents for Sunday stew. “Come on over tonight, for stew,” I hear myself saying. “Yes, please, bring wine and dessert.” For the time being, my wish will remain nothing more than that, as immediate family members on both my husband’s and my side of the family live in far-flung places…Ireland, Australia, California.

Back in Chicago, I create the family community I crave by regularly scheduling video chats with my sisters. On many such occasions, a few of us are sipping wine while the other drinks coffee—this is all thanks to vast time differences.

Other days, I recreate Sunday stew for two. Michael and I have adapted the beloved traditions of our large network of extended kinfolk for our own small family unit. It’s not quite the same, but it fills part of the void.

Bowl of stew with bread and spoon.

Bowl of stew with bread and spoon.

Over those tasty dinners we reminisce and daydream about going back to the home country. This reoccurring conversation is based on nostalgia, rather than reality, as we’ll be in Chicago for a long time. The piping hot pot of stew grounds us in the moment and we continue eating.

The warmth of an autumn stew, with its hearty vegetables and tenderly cooked beef or lamb, manages to fill the longing-for-home-void, warming us on the inside. The savory stock is as rehydrating as a good Belfast rain shower.

The process of preparing the stew is surely part of its pleasure. I find comfort in the ritual of chopping and peeling the vegetables that eventually end up bobbing in the stock, slowly turning from hard to soft. Sometimes, I pretend that my Mom is prepping alongside me, dicing an onion to five-star precision.

Other times, after having consumed a filling bowl of stew, I imagine doing dishes with my father-in-law in his Carryduff kitchen. The window above the sink hangs open, letting the steam escape from the hot water pouring from the faucet. He sings ditties and children’s songs as he dries the plates. I thank God I’m on my feet, so that gravity helps digest Sunday tea as I hum along.

It is not a mystery or anything new, really, that food and family go hand-in-hand. As we approach Thanksgiving in the Midwest, I’d like to take a moment to give thanks for those who are near and for those who are far. I think out loud: “You’re always with us, on our minds and in our hearts. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll come to visit again soon? I’ll cook you dinner!”

The rich stews, and the age-old rituals of preparation they require, are symbols of that connectedness. As I slurp a hot bowl of meats and vegetables—much to Michael’s annoyance—on a November evening, I remember whom I long for and wonder how, if possible, I will temporarily fill the void.

A treasured visit from family, of course, is what soothes that sense of loneliness best. However, the pleasure of stew is more readily accessible and will, fortunately or unfortunately, have to stand-in. At the very least, a fragrant stew, slowly simmering on the stovetop, brings to mind a mental picture of many spoons and bowls circling the pot, like a family, coming together.

Rosemary, lemon and garlic.

Garnish: rosemary, lemon and garlic.


November Slow Cooker Stew

(Adapted slightly from Jamie Oliver’s Jools’ Favourite Beef Stew.)

knob of butter

1 onion, peeled and chopped

1 package of sage (large handful of leaves)

1-2 pounds of stewing steak or beef skirt, cut into 2 inch pieces (or use lamb if you prefer)

sea salt and freshly ground pepper

flour, to dust (gluten free okay)

carrots, peeled and cut in threes

1-2 cups of butternut squash, deseeded and roughly diced

8-12 small potatoes, red and yellow

2 tablespoons tomato puree

½ bottle of red wine

½-1 pint beef or vegetable stock

zest of 1 lemon, finely grated

handful rosemary, leaves picked

1 clove of garlic, peeled and finely chopped

Prepare all vegetables first, by peeling and chopping. Heat deep pot on stovetop; drop in knob of butter, sage and onion. Fry on medium heat until onions are golden brown. Add lightly floured meat, all the vegetables, tomato puree, wine and stock; stir slowly, until ingredients come together. Season with freshly ground pepper and a bit of salt. Bring to boil for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, then transfer to slow cooker with setting on ‘high’ for 4-6 hours or until meat is tender, stirring occasionally over the 4-6 hours.

Mix lemon zest, chopped rosemary and garlic together and garnish each dish of stew. Add salt to taste. Serve with wine and fresh bread.

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