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Century of service

St. Paddy's Day corned beef tradition alive and well in Eau Claire

Top o’ the mornin’ to you.

Yes, it’s St. Patrick’s Day, that one day a year when many Americans get our Irish on.

We wear green, drink green or Irish beer and, if you’re like me, add a wee bit of exaggerated Irish lilt to your language whenever possible.

But most importantly, as far as I’m concerned, we celebrate the holiday by eating corned beef and cabbage.

I realize it’s not everyone’s favorite meal, but my wife, Susan, and I seek it out every March 17, even if it’s as difficult to find as a four-leaf clover in some parts of the world.

Fortunately, for those of us in Eau Claire, it’s easy to find a great corned beef dinner on St. Paddy’s Day. In a Wisconsin town with a French name, that’s the luck o’ the Irish if you ask me.

And I’m not talking about small helpings.

Long traditions

Three longtime venues known for preparing the holiday treat have plans to serve a total of 1,100 pounds of corned beef today.

Dave Ottosen, owner of Wigwam Tavern at 314 E. Madison St., said the bar has been serving the traditional St. Patrick’s day dinner of corned beef, cabbage and baby red potatoes for at least 55 years, including the past 15 since he became the proprietor.

“We’ll do about 500 pounds this year. It takes me four to five days to cook it all,” Ottosen said, reporting Wednesday that he had already begun cooking 24/7 to get ready for the big day.

The demand is so strong — and the space so limited in the 80-year-old tavern — that about 40 percent of the orders are for carry-out. He got his first telephone inquiry about corned beef nearly two weeks ago. It will be available all day starting at 11 a.m.

“It always goes over big that day. It’s by far my biggest day of the year,” Ottosen said, chuckling at the memory that the previous owner closed the sale of the bar on March 22 so he could enjoy one last St. Paddy’s Day.

The story is similar at Ray’s Place, which has served corned beef and cabbage annually on March 17 for the 69 years the Pieterick family has owned the tavern at 838 Water St.

Co-owner Dave Pieterick, who plans to make 300 pounds of corned beef this year, started cooking on Tuesday in preparation for today. The feast, which typically results in one of the bar’s busiest days of the year, will be served from 11 a.m. until the food likely runs out around 5 or 6 p.m.

“The customers really enjoy it, and that’s what you do it for,” he said. “People like the fact that we do it every year.”

The tradition at Ray’s Place stems from his mother, who was Irish and wanted to celebrate her ancestry, although his father, bar namesake Ray Pieterick, had a dash of Irish as well.

St. Patrick’s Church — where else?— also will host a St. Pat’s Day celebration today complete with a corned beef and cabbage dinner, Irish dancers, Irish music, a ukulele group and a raffle.

It marks the 22nd straight year the church, named for the patron saint of Ireland and founded with Irish roots, will hold the feast, planned from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Sacred Heart-St. Patrick Parish Center, 322 Fulton St.

“We have a lot of people who come every year. They just love the corned beef,” said event chairwoman Jeanne Reber, who has been involved every year.

To feed the expected masses, organizers ordered 300 pounds of corned beef, 120 pounds of baby red potatoes, 80 pounds of carrots and 40 heads of cabbage.

“It’s just a time to break out, especially this year, and celebrate that we’re finally getting toward spring,” Reber said.

Undoubtedly, many other Chippewa Valley restaurants — including but not limited to Dooley’s Pub, Green Mill Restaurant, Court ‘n House Bar & Grill, Galloway Grille and Lake Hallie Golf Club — will have Irish (for a day) eyes smiling as well by offering specials on corned beef, shepherd’s pie or other Irish dishes today.

Melting pot

All of this revelry happens, mind you, in a city where the latest census estimates show only about 10 percent of residents claim Irish ancestry — ranking a distant third behind German at 40 percent and Norwegian at 21 percent.

And the truth is corned beef and cabbage isn’t actually the national dish of Ireland or even something a visitor is apt to find on the Old Sod.

It became synonymous with the Irish, according to Delish magazine, when early Irish immigrants to the U.S. sought comforting tastes of home on St. Paddy’s Day. When boiled bacon, an authentic choice, proved too expensive for the poor immigrants, they turned to the cheapest cut of meat available: beef brisket.

Given that New York City was a melting pot for immigrants from around the world, the Irish adopted cooking methods from other cultures. To create what we now call corned beef, that meant brining, or salt-curing, meat, a technique borrowed from Eastern Europeans. The choice of cabbage, too, was driven by it being one of the cheapest vegetables available to the Irish immigrants.

So why, more than a century later, does corned beef and cabbage remain such a big deal on St Patrick’s Day?

“It’s just a fun day, and it’s really good food,” Ottosen said. “It’s that treat you only get once a year.”

I couldn’t agree more, although skeptics might claim my Irish food critic credentials are lacking because of my mostly German and Scandinavian heritage. I have, however, kissed the Blarney Stone on a visit to the Emerald Isle and, of course, eaten a lot of corned beef in my day.

With that, I’ll leave you with a toast to good health that is more authentically Irish than the meal I’m recommending you all partake in this St. Patrick’s Day: Sláinte!