Ireland is not a land for a vegetarian (which, thankfully, I am not). All of the traditional dishes include meat in some form, and undoubtedly potatoes. These may be accompanied by a few carrots, some peas, or a robust amount of steamed cabbage. So all-pervasive is this system that dinner is commonly referred to as "the meat and two veg". The weather really lends itself to hearty eating, and shepherd's pie, roasted bacon, mashed potatoes, and warm cabbage slathered with butter and salt are all delicious, but for someone who has been lucky enough to reside in one of the few locations in the world where we consider it an honest-to-god right to have access to an overflowing organic farmer's market three times a week, my new diet has been a little bit of an adjustment.
I went to Galway last weekend to visit a friend from school who happened to be on foreign exchange there, and we spent a significant amount of conversation reminiscing about vegetables. At one point I confessed I'd started fantasizing about eating entire heads of broccoli, kale and chard with lots of garlic, and green monster spinach smoothies. We worked ourselves into such a frenzy we went to the market and splurged on the makings of vegetable soup, accompanied by sautéed broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage. We sat back at the end of the meal like we had just eaten Thanksgiving dinner.
I'm not one to be ungrateful about what's put in front of me, and the home-cooked meals I'm lucky enough to eat every night are delicious (although Kate tends to give me enormous portions, insisting that I am too thin and that I can "afford it"). That doesn't change the fact that I'm going to eat nothing but salad and avocados when I get home.
The only thing that really takes the edge off is a meal that Californians just can't seem to get right. Maybe it's because we've convinced ourselves that "beer batter" is a good thing, or the insistence of putting ketchup on the table when it really has no role in the dish being put in front of us. I can't dwell on it too much, because I am too busy stuffing my face with fish and chips every chance I get.
The fish and chips in Ireland are divine. I've eaten enough servings around this country to even have a favorite chippy- the Blue Dolphin Café in Ballina. It's a tiny place, but somehow they've managed to squeeze in some wooden tables and chairs. It's owned and run by a husband and wife who will remember who you are, and make a fuss over you while you wait for your meal. I sit down at one of the tables, topped with salt, pepper, a hefty but elegant bottle of malt vinegar, and a fresh cut flower in a vase. I feel like I'm on a date with myself, and anticipate the delicious treat they're about to put in front of me.
And lo, there is. Normally it's one enormous piece of cod, chaperoned by a healthy handful of chips. The flaky, dense white fish is wrapped in a light, crunchy batter that doesn't separate when I pry a steaming chunk off with my fork, and has steamed it a buttery consistency. Every time I go, I tell myself that even under pain or duress, I will finish the whole thing. Unfortunately, because they know me here, just when I've made this pact with myself to be exceptionally gluttonous and play into the whole enormous portions thing, they tend to put an extra helping on my plate. That's Ireland for you.
A word about chips: chips are not fries. I've seen Americans get all huffy when they see "chips" on a menu, and make sure to point out to their somehow oblivious friend that, "Those aren't actually chips, like crunchy potato chips. They actually mean french fries." I can say with absolute certainty that, no, they don't. Restaurants in America may substitute fries for chips because they have ten other things on the menu with fries and don't want to bother with getting proper chips, but the distinction must be made. Fries are very thin and crispy. Chips are thick, golden, and fluffy. You can't really eat chips by the handful, like you can fries. You have to eat one or two at time, gasping with your mouth open obscenely because of the super-heated steam that's trapped inside them.
I've found that the key to really enjoying a good fish fry is to be liberal with the vinegar. I go so far as to poke my fish with a fork numerous times and douse the whole thing so it seeps into the fish itself. You may have to work up to this sort of commitment, but it is delicious. I also suggest being heavy-handed on your chips, and don't be embarrassed to lather and repeat.
Ketchup? I'm not even going to dignify that question with an answer.
By the time I finish my meal I can feel oil seeping out of my pores, but I am full and happy. I haven't finished the extra bit they gave me, and I consider taking it home, but the truth is fish and chips really need to be eaten right away, right there in the shop, and don't really hold up to travel. This is a real shame, because it's one of the delicacies and delights that I would really love to take back to California with me.