Friday, February 24, 2012

You Can't Go Home Again: (Not) Irish Soda Bread

Maybe it's because I live passionately.  Because when I put myself into something, I give 200%, so when it's over, it's like I've created a black hole.  Maybe it's because I am an emotional person.

Whatever it is, I have left some cities on bad terms.

In the middle of graduate school, it was LA.  I was the first in my class to take my comprehensive exams.  I prepared for them for months, nun-like in my devotion.  The day arrived; it went horribly.  I had three professors on my committee: an older conservative male writing his magnum opus, a recently tenured modernist powerhouse male, and a young feminist.  They used me as a pawn to have an argument about what was important in literature, and I didn't perform.  The end came, and I waited outside, in tears.  The feminist came out and told me that they passed me "in spite of" my performance, because they knew I was ready to advance.  I, on the other hand, knew I was ready to leave.  I haven't been back in over twelve years.

More recently, my last position.  A bad situation, after twelve years of earning accolades.  To this day, I have only driven back to that city once, and then, to its outskirts.

Until the other day.

I had occasion to go back to the city today, to campus, for a meeting.  Some consulting work, you might say.

It's a weird thing, to go back to a place like that, where you've left on bad terms.  You feel a strange longing for its familiarity; you know its secrets, its shortcuts, its back alleys.  You look for the things that have changed in your absence, surprised that it could go on without you, wishing it had all stayed the same.  And yet, at the same time, you are thankful for the emotional distance, and you still feel a little sick in the pit of your stomach, finding yourself back there.  You feel relief, passing through, knowing that this is just a visit, not a forever-stay; that this place is no longer yours.  That you know where you don't belong, and that you have somewhere else to go.  Maybe you feel defiance.  With any luck, you feel peace.

I know I can't go home again to the places I've left.  Even if I left them on better terms, I am a different person, and they've changed, too.  And that's not a bad thing.  We've created ourselves anew.

The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread (with thanks to JeCaThRe for posting that link last year) would have us all make it the way it was always made, not the way the grocery stores make it for St. Patrick's Day.  There were no eggs or sugar or raisins or baking powder in those breads.  They were brown breads, made with everyday ingredients.

But the damage has been done, and most people now think of Irish Soda Bread as that sweet cake-like bread with the raisins that you get at the bakery in March, even if it's actually Spotted Dog or Railway Cake that they're eating.

You can't go home again.  We can't turn back the clock and pretend that the name of this bread hasn't been co-opted.  But if we don't want to make plain brown bread, we can come to some middle ground, and make peace.

This isn't really Spotted Dog or Railway Cake, because it doesn't have sugar and eggs and all of the other things that make it more like cake; it may have raisins, but at least it's closer to what they had in mind over at the Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread.  Hopefully my Irish friends will forgive me.

Have you ever left a city on bad terms?  Have you gone back?  Where do you fall on the Irish Soda Bread debate?

(Not) Irish Soda Bread

3 cups (12 oz) of white flour
1 cup (4 oz) of wheat flour
1 1/3 c. buttermilk (pour in a bit at a time until the dough is moist)
1 t. of salt
1 1/2 t. baking soda*
3/4 c. raisins
 * if you are cheating and using baking powder, I found that 3/4 t. baking soda and 3/4 T. baking powder will also work

Soak the raisins in warm water for 5-10 minutes; drain well.

Preheat the oven to 350F. Line a baking sheet with parchment.

Sift all of the dry ingredients into a large bowl and mix well to combine.  Add raisins and mix to coat.

Add the buttermilk to form a sticky dough. Place on floured surface and lightly knead (too much allows the gas to escape).  Shape into a round flat shape, place on parchment, and cut a cross in the top of the dough.

Bake for 45-55 minutes.  Your bread will be done when it sounds hollow if you tap it on the bottom.  Cool and serve with a generous slather of butter!
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  1. I've had to bake too much original food with original ingredients at work to want to do it at home :) Which is a shame, too, because I have a lovely bake oven. I had co workers that actually snuck in jarred yeast, baking powder, and baking soda to cook with because they wanted their food to look and taste better. Cheaters ;) I'm glad that there are food historians that preserve how things were actually cooked. Even if some of the foods are actually quite nasty.

  2. For me the most jarring part of going back is the realization that I'm not PART of it anymore. Because there's still emotion when I remember back to the why I'm not there anymore, but there's distance of not being a part of it currently. Strange sort of dissonance and likely my cue to figure out how to let painful memories go.

  3. I wish I could take credit for finding that charming bit of the internet but it wasn't me. (And now I want to go make railway cake.)

  4. I've never had these feelings about a city, but I have about a job. I SO SO SO feel you on this--that passionate pouring out of yourself, down to the dregs, into something else, and there being this giant black hole at the end of it all. I used to think that this was just the nature of the social work beast--certain personalities are attracted to that line of work, people who have a very demanding drive of empathy and compassion, people who reflexively put others' needs before their own. And for me, in both of the longer-term positions I've held in my professional life, to wake up and see that this intense giving of yourself didn't make the change you had envisioned it would, it made me bitter and sad. Something switched off in me in that reality check. And when I was done, I was D.O.N.E. It all changed. And I did long for that sense of familiarity afterward, and that sense of collective mission and belonging, too. But it was never, ever the same afterward. And maybe, ultimately, it's for the better. I don't know.

    I am kind of embarrassed to admit this: I don't think I've ever had soda bread, proper or otherwise!

  5. Oooh, yay! Thanks for posting this! I am going to make this bread this year: I cook a "traditional" Irish feast every St Patrick's Day, complete with the corned beef, cabbage and potatoes.

    For me, the "bad places" all have to do with infertility: the "bad" house we lived in, the pharmacy I bought all my HPTs at, the grocery store where everyone had kids and I didn't. I don't like going to those places now. Bad juju.

  6. I have also had that feeling with regard to work. Although I loved my last job for a long time, it ended badly because I unraveled (yeah babyloss!) and I just don't want to go back "there" for the sake of my mental well being.

    The only time I had Irish soda bread was actually in Ireland and for a minute I was puzzled by your description because I remember it as a good brown bread (smothered in yummy Irish butter). I guess that maybe I'm an accidental purist? But, honestly, all of the versions sound pretty delicious and I don't have an Irish bone in me but I am really fond of St. Patrick's Day.


  7. The bread looks yummy, for sure, regardless of its identity :-)

    I can relate to what you're saying about places--I feel that deeply about places from my past. Sometimes it's an uneasy icky feeling, and other times it's just wistfully nostalgic. Thinking about a place also catapults me back to the time, and it just becomes more layered... hopefully we can just learn and grow from our black holes, and use them to measure how we've changed and evolved...!

  8. I've never left a city on bad terms, in fact, I'm quite fond of all the cities I've ever lived in. Having said that, I've never lived in LA. I don't think I could stand to live down there. NO WAY JOSE! If there were ever a city to hate, that is a good one for it. LA makes it SO EASY to hate it.

    I have a really complicated relationship with San Francisco. Really complicated. I like to think this city helps me work out my shit but she definitely doesn't make it easy. Not. At. All. It's pretty bad, actually. But I love it hear. And hate it. It's complicated. So very, very complicated.

    I wonder all the time where we'll end up and I wonder if it's no in SF, how I will ultimately feel about it. I guess only time will tell.

  9. I haven't left a city on bad terms but I have felt that way about some past jobs, not that I left them on bad terms exactly but that I was so burnt out and ready to leave them behind. Honestly I've not had soda bread before...apparently it's time I give it a try!

  10. Congrats in the consulting work and LA sorta just rubs everyone wrong, that's part of its glutton for punishment charm.

  11. I hear what you are can't go back home again...but i don't want to anyway.
    the only time we eat soda bread is in March!!

  12. I know nothing of soda bread, but this sounds easy and yummy. I used to bake bread often in my 20s...I wonder why I stopped? Hm.

    I have left a city and a state on uncomfortable terms. The city was the place I did my undergraduate degree. I was so awkward as an undergrad, and there are too many experiences I want to forget, that going back to that city seems like an awful idea. The state is one where I got my first academic job and where I thought I was starting my long illustrious academic career. Ha! I didn't fail, but I didn't succeed, either, so I associate the state with my own sense of intellectual mediocrity, and the career? Well, it stalled out right after my one year appointment ended. I hope to go back to that state again someday--it's a beautiful place and a popular vacation destination--but it will surely remind me of things I don't want to face about myself and the path my life has taken.


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