Pile of spuds, heaps of tradition ‘Colcannon was peasant food,’ Iain Graham says, but on this day, his hearty blend of bacon, veg and mash is fit for royals

St. Patrick’s Day is all about potatoes for Iain Graham.

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St. Patrick’s Day is all about potatoes for Iain Graham.

Not because he’s particularly fond of the starchy staple of traditional Irish fare, but because his schedule is ruled by their preparation.

Homemade is a Free Press series celebrating home cooking in Manitoba. We are currently looking for Easter and Passover dishes to feature in the paper. Visit Homemade to submit a recipe or join our Facebook group.

“I probably go through, on that day, 150 pounds of potatoes,” says the longtime volunteer cook of the Irish Association of Manitoba.

In the week leading up to the holiday, the kitchen at the association’s Erin Street clubhouse becomes his home away from home, where he spends hours cleaning, chopping and cooking ingredients for stew, shepherd’s pie and colcannon — a hearty blend of bacon, veggies and mashed potatoes.

On Wednesday morning, Graham still had a laundry list of prep work to do, but things were starting to fall into place.

“The Guinness has been delivered,” he says with a laugh.

Graham estimates he’s been helping out in the kitchen — as a cook and co-ordinator — for 10 years. He got involved when his daughter joined the McDonnell School of Irish Dance and took charge of the food for the club’s annual special events, such as St. Patrick’s Day and hosting Folklorama’s Irish pavilion. The latter is a major test of endurance for the home cook with no formal training.

“We could be serving close to 1,000 meals a night, seven nights a week,” he says. “After Folklorama, I don’t want to see a shepherd’s pie or plate of stew for months.”

While Graham is a first generation Canadian — his parents emigrated from Scotland and his family tree holds some Irish lineage — it’s his children who have picked up the cultural mantle, his daughter through Irish dance and his son through bagpiping.

“They’ve taken upon themselves their Celtic roots,” he says. “It’s good to see them buck the trends that might have made them seem uncool to their friends and kind of lead their own way.”

“We could be serving close to 1,000 meals a night, seven nights a week… After Folklorama, I don’t want to see a shepherd’s pie or plate of stew for months.”–Iain Graham

Last year’s Folklorama festivities were a family affair. Graham’s wife and daughter joined him in the club’s small kitchen doling out thousands of meals to cultural tourists. This year, he’s looking forward to taking a step back from his duties.

“I have relinquished the reins of kitchen chair to my daughter,” he says. “I’ll come in and do whatever I can to back her up.”

To set her up for success, he’ll be passing on the recipes he’s learned from previous culinary volunteers. Colcannon is one such dish, although Graham’s usual method is less recipe and more “by guess and by gosh.”

“I’ve never actually used a recipe. It’s, ‘OK, how much do we have of this and how much do we have of that?’” he says. “Historically, it was probably the same way. Colcannon was peasant food, it was all the stuff they could get their hands on.”

The mash was a way to enhance potatoes and cabbage — especially late in the season — with cheap cuts of fatty meat. Approximation has always been part of the tradition: “Every house you’d go to in Ireland would have a different recipe,” Graham says.

During association events, the dish is served on its own or with sausages. For many members, it’s a special-occasion food.

“There are menu items that people come for year after year,” Graham says. “People will come to the club on St. Patrick’s Day just to get colcannon or shepherd’s pie.”

The Irish Association, 654 Erin St., has a full slate of St. Patrick’s Day events beginning at 10:45 a.m. Friday. In addition to lunch and dinner service, there will be live music, dance and pipe performances throughout the day. Tickets are $10 for non-members. On Saturday, the club is hosting a St. Patrick’s Day parade at noon.


Submitted by Iain Graham

2 lbs potatoes, cubed
1 medium onion, diced
3 tbsp butter
1/4 cup cream
6 strips bacon
1 leek, cleaned and chopped into 1/4-inch pieces
6 oz cabbage or kale, chopped (or 1/2 bag coleslaw mix)
Salt and pepper, to taste

Wash and cube the potatoes. You can peel them if you wish but it isn’t necessary. Boil them in a large pot of water until fork tender and mashable.

Meanwhile, chop the bacon into 1/2-inch slices. In a large pan, fry bacon slowly to render out the fat. Add the onions and leeks and cook until soft. Add the cabbage or kale and sauté until all the vegetables are soft and wilted.

Mash the hot potatoes and stir in cream and butter. Add the sautéed vegetables, stirring until mixed well. Season with salt and pepper.

Serve hot.

Note: For a vegetarian preparation, omit the bacon, cream and butter. Sauté in canola oil and add margarine. Save a little of the potato water to help smooth out the mashed mixture.


Twitter: @evawasney

Eva Wasney

Eva Wasney
Arts Reporter

Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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