Some years ago, the city of Chicago adopted me.
I grew up in a place where I could see the World Trade Centers from my attic, where Puerto Rican cabbies spoke Yiddish, and where everyone thought Philadelphia was in the Midwest.
But when I moved to Chicago the day after my honeymoon, Sandburg’s “stormy, husky, brawling” city welcomed me with broad shoulders and open arms, and I fell in love with my adoptive city. Put celery salt on my Vienna Beef, make my pizza like a cheese casserole, and omit the objects of my prepositions: I’m a Chicagoan now!
Chicago has breathtaking architecture, a fabulous lakefront, ward politics that are more engaging than crime novels, and boisterous ethnic neighborhoods. Some of the Gaelic enclaves on the Southside of Chicago remind me of my mother’s Irish neighborhood in Brooklyn. They feature pubs haunted by the ghost of James Joyce, cut-throat Irish dance schools, perfect strangers who would give you the shirt off their backs, terrifyingly fierce rugby teams, charming old ladies with lilting brogues who make a mean pot of tea, and a blow-out St. Patrick’s Day parade. But what they don’t have—what the entire city of Chicago is sorely missing— is GOOD IRISH SODA BREAD.
Around St. Patrick’s Day, Irish Chicagoans dutifully eat the dry crumbs of sawdust they call soda bread, as if doing penance for their excesses on the holiday that ironically falls right in the middle of Lent. If you ask them, they’ll tell you they don’t really like the taste of the bread; they just feel compelled out of ethnic pride to swallow a slice of the particleboard. “It’s tradition,” they’ll mumble, and then say something about it being better than a potato blight.
Out of fondness for my adoptive city, I must share with it the lovely secret of my birth city: Irish soda bread is delicious. It’s not penance for cheating on Lent; it is cheating on Lent!
I will now divulge the secret recipe, perfected by that wild Irish rose, my mother from Brooklyn. My sister Debby will be upset that I’ve shared this secret. But Debby, is it right that an entire city should suffer? (Next time we’re together, Deb, I’ll buy a couple of Guinnesses to go with our soda bread, and we’ll forget our differences—Dublin style.)
For 1 loaf:
3 cups flour
½ cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons caraway seeds
½ cup raisins
1½ teaspoons baking soda
1½ cups buttermilk
For 3 loaves (you'll want 3 loaves):
9 cups flour
1½ cups sugar
½ tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons caraway seeds
1½ cups raisins
1½ tablespoons baking soda
1 quart buttermilk
Mix all the dry ingredients. Shake up, then add the buttermilk. Shape the dough into round loaves; they should be pretty sticky. Bake at 350° on a cookie sheet coated with cooking spray for about 45 minutes (until a knife inserted into the center comes out dry). Drizzle the top with honey if you like. Prep time: 10 minutes. Eating time: about the same!
Now, Chicago, on March 17, go for a walk along our gorgeous emerald green river with a hunk of this soda bread in your pocket— and a smile on your face!