Who needs Hocus Pocus when we have global positioning satellite systems, cell phones, iPods, and full-body airport scanners? No one believes in magic anymore. Well, if that’s the case why do you suppose we stay out of a black cat’s path, avoid walking under a ladder and put a penny in a new bride’s shoe? Because we are superstitious creatures, that’s why.
Since the beginning of history humans have turned to magic for guidance, comfort and power. And despite our huge body of modern scientific fact and technologic wizardry, we still question oracles, consult the stars and look for ways to auger the future.
The word magic comes from the Greek mageia, which meant the lore and practices of learned priests. They devoted their lives to studying the mysterious workings of nature. There was nothing unnatural about magic in the beginning. It was hard-won knowledge that required a lifetime of work to acquire.
These magicians, or Magi as they were called, were revered for their skills. Only they knew how to write, how to concoct cures and poisons from plants, how to fashion metal by melting certain stones together. And only they knew how to track the moon, planets and stars as they rose, set and journeyed across the sky.
Long ago, the universe was thought to be a huge rolling wheel, evidenced by the celestial procession of heavenly bodies and the cycles of earth’s seasons. The Celts used wheel designs as talismans and magical protective emblems. The Etruscans named their wheel goddess Vortumna, She Who Turns the Year. Romans called her Fortuna, the goddess whose revolving wheel marked the seasons and determined the fates of men.
Slowly but surely the mighty wheel evolved into the medieval Wheel of Fortune, and Fortuna became known as Lady Luck. Popular customs changed drastically in the intervening millennium, but the goddess is yet invoked every time someone places a bet at the roulette (little wheel) table in a modern gambling casino!
When the turning wheel closes out one year and opens the next, it’s out with the old and in with the new! As the year is reborn, the magic of the moment sets the tone for the next twelve months. It’s the best time to begin projects and make resolutions for positive changes in our lives. It’s also a good idea to have a clean house, well-stocked shelves, money in our pockets and new clothes on our backs. But beware! All preparation work must be completed before midnight, for if you do not greet the year relaxed and carefree, you will find yourself working like a slave in the coming months.
The New Year comes in with a bang. Bells toll the twelve strokes of midnight. People hammer pots and pans, blow whistles, toot horns and set off firecrackers. The racket is not just a group of revelers carried away by the euphoria of the moment. Long ago, it was thought that loud noises would drive away evil spirits who might be lurking around. In Ireland, people believed New Year’s Eve was one of the times when fairies roamed at large. For that reason, country folk stayed indoors that night and were disinclined to invite strangers into their homes.
Insuring that good luck will be abundant during the coming months lies at the heart of New Year celebrations. The best method, of course, is to surround yourself with allies willing to help accomplish your objectives! Eating and drinking together is humanity’s oldest alliance-cementing custom. The very word “companion” means “one who breaks bread with another”.
In Ireland the last night of the year was called Oiche na Coda Moire, The Night of the Big Portion. It was common practice to have a big supper that night to ensure a full cupboard and plenty to eat in the twelve months to come. Of course, the custom dated back to a time when crop success meant the difference between feast and famine. Spells and incantations were invoked to protect the household from danger.
Women prepared large barm brack cakes. In many cases, the man of the house would take three bites out of the cake and dash the rest of it against their cottage door saying as he did, “We warn famine to retire from tonight to this night twelve months.” In County Limerick the whole cake was knocked against the door three times for the same reason. In County Cork, after the cake was consumed the last crumbs were thrown at the door and windows to prove that no one inside was hungry.
New Year’s Day was known as La na gCeapairi, The Day of Buttered Bread. As another talisman against hunger, neighbors went from house to house exchanging slices of fresh bread slathered with sweet creamy butter. Buttered bread sandwiches were also placed outside the door for wayfaring fairies.
In Northern Ireland, a Scottish New Year’s tradition took root when England sought to suppress the Ulster counties by “planting” loyal Scotsmen there during the seventeenth century. Called “first footing”, it signified that the first person to cross over the threshold would predict the household’s luck for the coming year. Hopefully, the visitor would be a dark haired man who brought with him a lump of coal, a coin and a piece of bread, symbols of warmth, wealth, and food. For his good wishes, he was treated to a glass of hot whiskey punch and a slice of lucky barm brack cake.
Since eating well on New Year’s Day was synonymous with having a full cupboard for the next twelve months, the year’s first meal was very important. Even today many Irish families sit down to a grand version of what is known as an “Irish Breakfast”. It consists of fried eggs, rashers of bacon, sausages, black and white savory puddings, plus grilled tomatoes, potatoes and mushrooms! In the North, this copious breakfast is called an “Ulster Fry” and it’s always accompanied by soda farls, which are split in half and lathered with butter and tangy orange marmalade, or fried on the pan in hot bacon drippings.
In my own house, the first course to New Year’s breakfast is a family tradition that was passed down by my grandmother who was born in County Fermanagh a bowl of steaming oatmeal that’s dotted with gobs of butter, sprinkled with brown sugar, awash in cream and laced with a liberal shot of aged Irish whiskey!
Before preparing my first feast of 2012, I’ll make my list of New Year’s resolutions. Then I’ll bolster my chances for success in the coming twelve months by inviting Lady Luck to come sit by my side while I share a proper Ulster Fry with family and friends.
Perhaps if Fortune is really smiling, a dark-haired man will show up and hand me a winning lottery ticket. Sláinte!
NEW YEAR RECIPES
IRISH WHISKEY PUNCH
1 measure of Irish whiskey
1 teaspoon sugar
6 whole cloves
2 thin lemon slices
3/4 cup boiling water
Put the whiskey, sugar, cloves and lemon slices in a heatproof glass or mug. Pour in the boiling water and stir until the sugar dissolves. Makes 1 serving.
12 oz flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 heaping teaspoon baking soda
8 fl oz buttermilk
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Sift the dry ingredients into a large bowl. Make a well in the center and pour in all the buttermilk at once. Mix quickly into a firm dough. Do not overmix or handle too much or the farls will be tough and heavy. Turn dough onto a floured board and knead lightly. Pat into a 1-inch thick circle. Cut into 4 triangular farls. Heat a baking sheet and dredge with flour before setting the farls on top. Bake until risen and golden brown for about 45 minutes. They should sound hollow when tapped. Cool farls on a wire rack by standing them on edge, leaning against each other for support. Serve warm with butter and jam.
To serve in the Ulster style: After baking and cooling, split farls through the middle and fry in a small amount of hot bacon fat.
ORANGE WHISKEY MARMALADE
1 1/2 pounds oranges
juice of 1 lemon
5 cups water
3 pounds sugar
2 tablespoons malt whiskey
After scrubbing the oranges, remove peel in wide strips being careful not to include the white pith. Slice the peel on the diagonal in 1/8″ strips and set aside. Cut the oranges in halves and squeeze out the juice, saving all the seeds. Tie the spent orange halves and all the seeds in a muslin bag. Combine orange juice, water, sliced peel and muslin bag of leavings in a medium stainless steel saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer and cook gently for about 2 hours or until the peel is soft. Remove the muslin bag squeezing it into the cooked peel to extract all the released pectin (a natural gelling agent contained in orange seeds and pith). Add sugar and stir until it is dissolved. Turn up the heat and cook at a rolling boil 10-20 minutes until setting point is reached. To test for setting, place a teaspoon of marmalade on an ice-cold plate. The jam should turn firm immediately.
Remove marmalade from heat, skim off any foam and let stand until a skin begins to form (about 30 minutes). Stir in whiskey. Ladle into warm jars that have been sterilized in a 200 degree oven for twenty minutes. Let cool completely, then seal and store in a cool, dark place until ready to use. Screw-top jars are fine, but never use an unlined lid unless you first cover the jar with waxed paper or seal the marmalade with a thin layer of melted canning parafin.
QUICK ORANGE WHISKEY MARMALADE
1 jar of fine quality orange marmalade
2 teaspoons Irish whiskey
Stir whiskey into marmalade and let sit one week to set flavor before using.
AN ULSTER FRY
8 mushrooms, quartered
2 boiled and cooled potatoes, sliced into small chunks
4 rashers of Irish bacon
4 Irish sausages
4 slices of black and white Irish breakfast pudding
2 tomatoes, halved
2 soda bread farls
The secret of preparing an Ulster Fry is to cook the food in the right order, starting with the ingredients that require the longest cooking time, so that everything will be ready at once. The amounts listed above will serve two people. After each component is cooked, divide it into two portions and place on large heat-proof plates in a 200 degree preheated oven to keep warm until serving.
Begin by frying the mushrooms and potatoes in separate oiled pans until the mushrooms are grilled and the potatoes are golden brown. Fry bacon, sausages and pudding slices in another large pan with a little cooking oil or butter. When the meats are cooked, drain them on paper towels. Fry farls and tomato halves in the same pan to infuse with savory flavor. Finally, add a little butter to the pan and fry the eggs sunny-side up or over-easy. Place eggs on hot plates with all the other ingredients and serve.