Potluck of the Irish: A St. Patrick’s tradition | AspenTimes.com

Potluck of the Irish: A St. Patrick’s tradition

Catherine Lutz
Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

It may seem odd that the biggest St. Patrick’s Day celebration in the valley – the dinner at St. Mary Catholic Church – doesn’t include corned beef and cabbage. After all, that’s what countless restaurants, churches and community centers around the country are serving on this most traditional of Irish holidays.But if you take a look at history – Aspen and Irish – it makes sense.When the St. Mary parish held its first St. Patrick’s Day dinner, in 1887, it was a potluck fundraiser to build a new church. Miners and farmers would come with what they had, which was generally roast beef or roast pork. Corned beef is made by curing the meat with salt and spices for a lengthy time; it’s quite likely the locals didn’t have the time, the need or the recipes to do that.

“Roast beef was a traditional dish here for the old miners,” said John Keleher, whose proudly Irish family volunteers for the event.Not too long before the first St. Patrick’s Day dinner at St. Mary, Irish immigrants to the United States and Canada began serving corned beef and cabbage at their tables. It was a new tradition – the dish was considered a delicacy, and beef was too expensive, for much of Irish history. It turns up for the first time in historical records in the 16th century, according to the website irishcultureandcustoms.com, but by modern times it was considered too plain to serve at holidays in Ireland. Meanwhile, in the New World, salt and beef were cheaper than they were back home, and Irish immigrants started preparing beef the same way they would a longtime favorite, the bacon joint, by curing it in salt, then soaking it, braising it and boiling it with cabbage and minimal spices.

Hence, a tradition emerged and spread like wildfire across the United States; but it missed Aspen. Locals continued their dinner every year as a social gathering and fundraising event, even after the parish dedicated the new church (the current one) in 1892.For the past four years it’s been a fundraiser for the Charity Assistance Fund, which aids needy families of all faiths in the Roaring Fork Valley. This year, organizers hope the event raises $50,000 for the fund, which provides the poor with such things as food vouchers, emergency housing, transportation assistance and emergency help with bills.The St. Patrick’s Day dinner at St. Mary certainly has become its own entrenched tradition. In addition to roast pork and roast beef, volunteers are serving homemade mashed potatoes, coleslaw from a secret recipe handed down through generations and green beans. Event Chairwoman Beverly Weaver said the dinner will use 450 pounds of mashed potatoes. She expects a turnout of about 900. This popular event includes live traditional music and beer, wine and other beverages. The fundraising aspect has morphed into a silent auction, which this year includes the snowboard Gretchen Bleiler used to win the X Games superpipe last year, a Cape Cod sunset cruise, resort vacations and more. The dinner is free with a donation to the Charity Assistance Fund.

“People come from all around; they plan their vacations around it,” said Father Mike O’Brien, the parish priest. “We’re almost victims of our own success, we’re so popular.”Corn beef craving?If you want corned beef and cabbage, you won’t go hungry. St. Vincent’s Catholic Church in Basalt serves the traditional meal (with the option of roast beef), as does the American Legion Post 100 in Carbondale on St. Patrick’s Day. The Hotel Colorado offers an Irish buffet, also including Irish stew, soda bread, live music and a storyteller.And with several local restaurants in Snowmass promising traditional Irish fare during the all-day celebration on the mall (spiced with drum and bagpipe parades, Irish dancers and several musical acts), there’s a pretty good chance you can get your fix there.Catherine Lutz’s e-mail address is cathlutz@aspentimes.com

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