Photo: doolloop, Flickr
Americans today tend to celebrate St. Patrick's Day with platefuls of Irish fare and pints of Irish stout, but the pseudo-Gaelic menu's actually a relatively recent addition to a holiday long marked by dyeing food green.
St. Patrick's been on the Irish calendar for more than 1,000 years, honoring the fifth century Brit who led the first full-scale Christian mission to the Emerald Isle. A resolutely religious occasion, the only treat associated with the celebration in Old Ireland was bacon and cabbage, since Lenten prohibitions on meat were waived for the holiday. Food and drink were such minor considerations that Irish law shuttered bars on St. Patty's Day through the 1970s.
The holiday acquired its jollity in the U.S., where Irish immigrants in 1762 began expressing their patriotism with raucous parades and parties. While a bigoted populace initially shunned the festivities, the sheer number of Americans with Irish roots spurred a 20th century surge in Irish-American political power and ancestral pride. By the 1930s, Americans of all backgrounds were joining in the Mar. 17 fun, cheering on parade participants and cooking holiday meals.
But few celebrants bothered to prepare authentically Irish spreads of soda bread and stew. While a few first-generation immigrants clung to the habit of feasting on bacon and cabbage – updated to include corned beef, a cheaper meat sold by their Jewish neighbors in New York's Lower East Side -- the foodstuffs of choice were almost universally green.
"This is the day for wearin' o' the green, so perhaps it is a day for Sunday dessert in the color that honors St. Patrick," the Chicago Tribune's Mary Meade wrote in 1963. "Our cake is a pet recipe for a two-layer snow cake which we've given a green tinted pineapple filling and a paler tinted spring green frosting."
For an added Irish touch, Meade suggested decorating the cake with shamrocks made from coconut dyed green. Meade was also a great fan of pear halves encased in lime gelatin.
As early as 1933, the Los Angeles Times proposed a green-hued menu featuring cream of pea soup, preserved sweet gherkins and pistachio ice cream. The Settlement Cook Book chimed in a few years later with an advised St. Patrick's line-up of grapefruit halves crowned with green Maraschino cherries, olives, celery and crème de menthe granite.
The rage for green was so great that Meade in 1935 apologetically published recipes for pasties and potato pudding, suggesting harried cooks could recognize the holiday "without resorting to all manner of tricks with a shamrock cutter and a bottle of green coloring."
Yet it wasn't so easy to pry the green dye from homemakers' hands. As Adam Burrows chronicled in his comprehensive paper on the topic, eaters have been searching for safe ways to dye their food since the heyday of Ancient Egypt. Before the advent of synthetic dyes in 1856, aesthetic-minded cooks resorted to whitening their flour with chalk, lime and bones, and perking up their pickles with copper. More than 200 guests at a nineteenth-century wedding party in rural Iowa were seized by vomiting spells after indulging in ice cream made green with copper salts.
Texas' Food and Drug Commissioner in 1911 blamed recurrent outbreaks of dye poisonings on "women's love for pretty colors":
"The woman wants greeny green peas, and so some courteous Frenchman hunts up some copper sulphate to fix the original pea color," J.S. Abbott said, ticking off the deadly additives that had saturated the American pantry. Reformers in 1880s Boston discovered almost half of the candies for sale there were tinted with at least one toxic mineral pigment.
The federal government finally took action in 1906, banning metal salts and other dangerous pigments. While some unsafe dyes still circulated, the Wiley Act gave shoppers reason to trust food coloring. Food coloring became an essential element in the amateur cook's arsenal, a trend that accelerated after the passage of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in 1938. And with few obvious occasions to liberally douse dishes with artificial color, St. Patrick's Day emerged as a green dye day.
"We've been thinkin' that the miracles of the gud St. Pathrick, rest his sowl, arre not mich mur wunderfrful than the things Amurrican colleens devise to honor himself," the Los Angeles Times' Lona Gilbert wrote in 1938, adopting the faux brogue that was an annual food writing tradition. "Shamrocks out of gumdrops or green peppers. Horseshoes cut from avocados. Any of the party refreshments tinted green...we Americans are anticipating already the joyous Celtic feast day."