On the Road In Search of My Darby Duck

April L. Dowd photo

DUBLIN, IRELAND -- It was the early '50s in the tiny kitchen of a third-floor walk-up in Darby, a Philadelphia suburb then dominated by second-generation and recently arrived Irish.

The young visitor from New York is balking at the chicken dinner being put on the table in front of him.

"I don't like chicken," the young ingrate mutters to his gray-haired granny.

" 'Tisn't chicken, darlin' boy," she says in her light brogue, a hint of a smile playing around the creases of her work-worn face. " 'Tis Darby Duck, and there's no finer dish you can have in Ireland or here in my kitchen."

Quickly convinced, as kids often are by their elders, he dug into the dish with enthusiasm. "Darby Duck" had won a lifelong convert.

One fine night many, many years later, the ex-kid was sitting in a venerable old pub in Kinsale, a picturesque seaport town on the south coast of Ireland's County Cork, pondering what to have for dinner.

The most recommended dish was a roast chicken.

"Darby Duck," he thought. "Sure and there'll be no finer dish here in Ireland or even at home in my kitchen."

And, 'twas true.

We had headed for a motor vacation in Ireland determined to overcome the negative stereotype about Irish food. You know: "What's a seven-course Irish meal? A potato and a six-pack." "You can have your meat any way you like it, as long as it's mutton."

True foodies, the four of us -- the missus amd I plus Mr. & Mrs. Brown, our frequent traveling and dining colleagues -- assumed we could break the mold. Impossible, others told us. "Ireland is where you go to drink, not to eat." "I actually lost weight there in one week of bad food." And on and on.

Our first night in Ireland made us wonder a bit. We'd flown into Dublin, planning to motor around the east and south coasts, then up into the west coast wilds of County Clare -- where that old granny had come from -- before heading back down to Shannon and flying home eight days later.

We checked into our hotel -- the beautifully converted Clontarf Castle, site of one of the epic battles for Irish warrior king Brian Boru -- and asked for advice.

Where, we asked, is the best place for local food?

Well, said the bell captain in all seriousness, it depends on what you're looking for. The best in the city is Italian, Thai or Chinese.

Of course it is. And isn't that true in most places these days unless you're so far off the beaten path you're creating an entirely new one?

The ubiquity of various ethnic foods is widespread. Whether you're in Ireland or the States or in the Caribbean, Europe or Asia, you're assailed by many of the same choices -- Italian, Thai, Chinese, Indian, Pizza Hut, McDonald's, TGI Friday, KFC and so on.

We chose Italian, and after a very serviceable meal at a pasta palace, retired to our hotel.

Under a vaulted ceiling in the castle's stonewalled pub, one of the gentlemen in our party had a tall, lukewarm, alluringly dark Guinness draft while the other tried to get over his jet lag by teaching the pleasant young bartender how to make a bourbon Manhattan. Sort of a cross-cultural evening, but it set the tone for the beverage portion of our trip.

And then it was off for a 600-mile string of B&Bs, sheep, village and city pubs (one of them, Cruise's in Ennis, County Clare, was founded in 1654), sheep, breathtaking vistas, sheep (as humor writer Dave Barry has noted, Ireland appears to be an island slowly being consumed by sheep), makers and purveyors of crystal and sweaters, sheep, and some interesting meals. And sheep.

In the aforementioned Kinsale pub, we dined on excellent roasted chicken: lightly seasoned, succulent white meat, browned skin with no hint of greasiness -- Darby Duck at its finest, plus oven-browned potatoes, tender carrots, dense soda bread slathered with the rich Irish butter and pots of robust dark tea.

And, of course, some of our party opted for a pint or three of the Guinness while some others helped along another pillar of the Irish economy by surrounding a few drams of smooth, golden Jameson's whiskey.

(As a concession to the many Americans who flood the island each year, it no longer is an effort to get a bit of ice in your drinks.)

Of course, there were other, more elaborate meals here and there that show the emergence of continental-trained chefs bringing their newly honed skills back home to broaden the cuisine -- a particularly fine set of fork-tender beef medallions in a green peppercorn/sherry/cream sauce; a Cajun-spiced chicken sandwich with a tomato-paste salsa topping the equal of any sandwich saucing I've ever had; fresh-caught salmon or sole that you know just came off the fishing boat at the local pier; calorie-be-damned ice cream sundaes draped in honey or butterscotch or dusky, cocoa-y chocolate; any kind of potatoes (and at many meals you got french fries -- "chips" -- in addition to mashed, boiled or roasted potatoes), and wonderful yeasty white breads and flavored soda breads.

So, while I'd never consider Ireland a cuisine destination place, I'd certainly argue against the notion that it's a nation of culinary Philistines. A little intelligent scouting around will help you uncover food just like at home, or something with a bit of a local flavor.

Virtually all the pubs serve food, and sitting on the bar side of a pub/restaurant will usually get you the same menu but at a reduced price. The saving comes from having to go to the bar and bring back your own drinks, and sit at little cocktail tables rather than full-size tables. But that's a tiny thing for the 10 to 20 percent saving. And when you're in a true Irish pub, the last thing you want to do is be in the restaurant separated from the bar and the conversation (real conversation, about life and love and politics and travel and finance) and -- sterotypical as it sounds -- the frequent impromptu sing-alongs.

And you don't have to be a drinker to take up space in a pub. Soft drinks (from Coca-Cola to the delicious local Finches sodas) as well as juices, coffee or tea are not an unusual order.

But wait, you say, what about the "full Irish breakfasts" of tourist legend?

Ahhh, `tis true about them. A bowl of porridge, a rack of toast with rich butter and marmalade, orange juice, a platter of fried or scrambled eggs, broiled tomatoes, Irish bacon (closer to what we call Canadian bacon), slices of fried pudding (more like a dense sausage, either "white" or "black" pudding, the former made with meal and spices and sometimes a bit of meat, the latter made dark with blood), plus a carafe of strong tea or coffee with rich fresh cream.

Does everyone in Ireland eat breakfast like this?, we asked the slim hostess of a hotel restaurant located on the promenade of Galway city, overlooking misty Galway Bay.

"Oh, Lordy no," said she. "That's mostly for the tourists. If you ate like that all the time it'd kill you."


• The New Irish Cuisine

You Live In ...

You Live in New Hampshire when ...

1. You only have four spices: salt, pepper, ketchup, and Tabasco.

2. Halloween costumes fit over parkas.

3. You have more than one recipe for moose.

4. Sexy lingerie is anything flannel with less than eight buttons.

5. The four seasons are: winter, still winter, almost winter, and construction.

You live in the Midwest when ...

1. You've never met any celebrities, but the mayor knows your name.

2. Your idea of a traffic jam is 10 cars waiting to pass a tractor.

3. You have had to switch from "heat" to "A/C" on the same day and back again.

4. You end sentences with a preposition: "Where's my coat at?"

5. When asked how your trip was to any exotic place, you say, "It was different!"

You live in the Deep South when ...

1. You can rent a movie and buy bait in the same store.

2. "Ya'll" is singular and "all ya'll" is plural.

3. After five years you still hear, "You ain't from 'round here, are ya?"

4. "He needed killin' " is a valid defense.

5. Everyone has two first names: Billy Bob, Jimmy Bob, Mary Sue, Betty Jean, Mary Beth, etc.

You live in New York City when ...

1. You say "The City" and expect everyone to know you mean Manhattan.

2. You have never been to the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building.

3. You can get into a four-hour argument about how to get from Columbus Circle
to Battery Park, but can't find Wisconsin on a map.

4. You think Central Park is "nature."

5. You believe that being able to swear at people in their own language makes you multi-lingual.

6. You've worn out a car horn.

7. You think eye contact is an act of aggression.

You live in Florida when ...

1. You eat dinner at 3:15 in the afternoon.

2. All purchases include a coupon of some kind, even for houses and cars.

3. Everyone can recommend an excellent dermatologist.

4. Cars in front of you are often driven by headless people.

You live in Arizona when ...

1.  You are willing to park three blocks away because you found shade.

2.   You can open your car without touching the door and you can drive your car without touching the steering wheel.

3.   You've experienced condensation on your butt from the hot water in the toilet bowl.

4. You can attend any function wearing shorts and a tank top.

5.   "Dress Code" is meaningless at high schools and universities. Picture lingerie ads.

6.   You can drive for 4 hours in one direction and never leave town.

7.   You have over 100 recipes for Mexican food.

8.   The four seasons are: tolerable, hot, really hot, and ARE YOU KIDDING ME??!!

9. You know that "dry heat" actually is comparable to what hits you in the face when you open your oven door.

You live in California when ...

1. You make over $250,000 and still can't afford to buy a house.

2 The high school quarterback calls a timeout to answer his cell phone.

3. The fastest part of your commute is going down your driveway.

4. You know how to eat an artichoke.

5. When someone asks you how far something is, you tell them how long it will take to get there rather than how many miles away it is.

You live in Colorado when ...

1. You carry your $3,000 mountain bike atop your $500 car.

2. You tell your husband to pick up Granola on his way home and he stops at the day care center.

3. A pass does not involve a football or dating.

4. The top of your head is bald, but you still have a pony tail.

Thanks to our good friend Dave LaCascia who passed along this compilation.

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