I first met this week’s EATING AUTHORS guest at a hotel in Albuquerque, NM this past spring. I’d flown in the day before to get a leg up on the altitude and Rick Wilber was swinging by to give me a ride north up and to the community of Angel Fire where we were both participating in the Rio Hondo writers’ retreat. Despite my having no interest in the sport of baseball (if I can say that this week, having been born in Chicago) and Rick having a love for the game that is unrivaled in my experience (which he comes by naturally, as the son of professional baseball player, Del Wilber), we got along pretty well. We ended up sharing a condo (with David D. Levine) for a week, as well as more than a few meals.
I always like hanging out with other folks who have done time in the professorial trenches. Rick was generous with his time and experience in this writing business, both during formal critique sessions and after hours just hanging out. I’m very grateful for the experience, and no doubt a better writer as a result.
Rick’s probably best known for his many short story sales and his win of the Sidewise award. He’s also an anthologist, a poet, and a novelist. Naturally, when I learned he had a new book coming out (I’m referring of course to Alien Mornin) tomorrow, I invited him to come on by, ostensibly to share the tale of his most memorable meal.
LMS: Welcome, Rick. Nice to have you here at a more reasonable elevation. Now, let’s talk about meals!
RW: My most memorable meal was a simple shepherd’s pie I had with author and great friend Joe Haldeman in Paddy Mac’s, a hundred-year-old pub in the Irish market town of Tralee, in County Kerry, a few years back.
For the past twenty-five years my wife and I have taken students on a three-week study tour of Ireland. Typically, we start off in Dublin, staying at Trinity College for a week, and then we head to the West of Ireland, where we stay in Galway or Limerick and do daytrips, and then we head down to Killarney, in County Kerry, for the final week of the study tour. Along the way we have guest lecturers from people like the amazing Irish bagpiper Mickey Dunne, the very talented Irish novelist Michael Russel, two amazing poets, John W. Sexton and Eileen Sheehan, Irish historian and author and journalist Ryle Dwyer, and others. And sometimes scholars, writers and editors join us, guest lecturing about writing or publishing or editing while they travel. Jacob and Rina Weisman of Tachyon books came along recently, and Robert J. Sawyer and Carolyn Clink joined us, too, one year, as did Ben Bova and his late wife Barbara.
And so one year not so long ago it was Joe and Gay Haldeman on the study tour, with Joe chatting often with very interested writing students. Somewhere early on Joe and I ordered shepherd’s pie, started talking about cultural identity tied up with food, and before long, we were on a hunt: to find the best shepherd’s pie in Ireland.
Shepherd’s pie, of course, is that British and Irish staple that includes minced (ground) lamb or beef (or both), often with onions mixed in, covered in mashed potatoes and then that covered with cheese and baked in an oven to be served piping hot. There are many ways to vary that basic recipe, starting with adding vegetables into the mince (onion is common, but chopped carrots or green peppers work fine, too). You can also get fancy with spices or other additions to the mashed potatoes, and the cheese, of course, can be any of several kinds that nicely brown a bit in the oven.
For the purist, if it’s lamb, it’s shepherd’s pie; if it’s beef, it’s cottage pie. But Joe and I were not purists in this regard, and we discovered that your mileage may vary depending on what pub or restaurant you are in when you place the order. We ordered the shepherd’s pie or cottage pie and had at it, often to the bemusement of our wives, who were busy enjoying all sorts of interesting Irish meals in all sorts of interesting cities and towns, while Joe and I stayed tightly focused on the task at hand. In Dublin, and in Galway, and in Limerick, and in Killarney, and in Dingle Town Joe and I set to it. You would think all this would weigh you down, both metaphorically and literally, but we had struck an agreement early on to find the best shepherd’s pie in Ireland and by god we were sticking to the plan, forkful by forkful.
In defense of this culinary foolishness, we did build up a very good knowledge base from which to form our opinion, working our way through all those pubs and restaurants and all those shepherd’s pies. And then, one drizzly day in the market town of Tralee, we wandered into Paddy Mac’s over the lunch hour. We liked it: old, dark, worn, cozy, friendly, a long bar, some tables. Authentic, in other words. The real deal. So we placed our order, sat patiently at the table with a handy pint of Guinness each to hold body and soul together during the wait, and then, the pies were set before us. They were unprepossessing in appearance, but we’d learned not to judge a pie by its cover, so we each took a forkful or two, and then – I swear to you this is sort of how it happened – we looked at each other and said something very much like, “Wow, this is it!” Our language may have been a bit saltier than that, but you will remember that a lot of research had gone into this, the trip was nearing its end, and so we were relieved, and happy, to know that we had, at last, found the grail. The best shepherd’s in Ireland.
It was delicious. What made different from all the others? The spices? The chopped scallions? The quality of the mince? The slightly buttery perfection of the mashed potatoes? The excellent, slightly browned, cheese? We didn’t know. But we enjoyed every bit, and then told the bartender of our rating of the pie as we left.
A few months ago I was back in Tralee and there was Paddy Mac’s. And it was lunch hour. The shepherd’s pie was excellent. Thank goodness.
Thanks, Rick. As someone who has scoured the U.S. in search of the best eggs benedict, I appreciate your quest. But… what now? What will you do for purpose in your life?
Next Monday: Another author and another meal!
Tags: Eating Authors