I want to talk about corned beef. I really do. Thick, tender corned beef that you don’t need a knife to cut, and that pinkish-colored cabbage that my mom makes with tomato sauce and sour cream, and boiled potatoes with lots of butter, and Irish soda bread with juicy raisins. But before I can even mention those tasty morsels, I have to say a little bit about my family, as well as the house that was practically part of our family too.
I won’t even try—not here—to tell everything about the Lucas family that there is to tell. That story, like my family itself, is as big as it is beautiful. Suffice it to say that there are six children—three boys and three girls, three adopted and three not—and that there are 17 years between the oldest child and the youngest. The house grew along with the family. It started off in 1962 as a simple two-bedroom affair, but six kids and two additions later it was a sprawling five-bedroom ranch. By the time it was finished, you needed a map to find your way around. Like my family and our house, the Corned Beef Fest was an organic thing that just grew and grew.
It began in the late ’90s. My brother Brian (the youngest Lucas) mentioned that the parents of a college friend of his owned an Irish pub in Jersey City, and he invited my parents to go there with him, which they did. I should mention that my mother is Irish, and although my Hungarian father was not, he did always enjoy high quality food, whatever its nationality. So in the course of their meal at the pub, my dad said, “Hey! This is really good corned beef! How can we get some of this really good corned beef to eat at home?” And by the following March, that Really Good Corned Beef graced the Lucas dinner table for a special St. Patrick’s Day Dinner, and it was from this humble beginning that the Corned Beef Fest was born. Every March thereafter, more and more people came to join the Lucases in their consumption of really good corned beef. At first a few of my younger siblings’ friends joined us, and then my parents started inviting their friends, and then the Corned Beef Fest was truly in full swing. Even guests started bringing guests. It was as if my parents’ welcoming embrace just grew wider every year.
Here’s a little sampling of what went on at the Corned Beef Fest, like a small slice of Irish soda bread for the reader. Upon arriving at the Lucas home, whether you were a newcomer or a regular at the Fest, the first thing you did was surrender your outerwear. (It was March, remember, and New Jersey, so it was still cold outside.) All coats were given to one of the Lucas kids (there was always one of us around somewhere) and carried off to the part of the house where the bedrooms were. No one but a Lucas dared to enter those far off regions where shadows and quiet prevailed! For one thing, there were (somehow) five bedrooms and three bathrooms back there, and a person could get lost. Also, it was dark and hushed and very far from the noise of the party, and if you were a little kid or were even slightly drunk (there were plenty of both), you might be a wee bit spooked. In any case, one of the Lucases would deposit your coat on the growing pile on the bed in my sister Kerry’s old room, then return to the celebration, the sounds of laughing and talking becoming louder as the bedrooms were left behind.
There was a good deal of chatting and mingling and snacking; you might hardly notice that dinner preparations were being finished or that long folding tables were being set. Although we kids tried to help out when we could, my parents seemed to be everywhere doing everything at once, and smiling as they did it. One minute I was with my mom in the living room helping her spread a tablecloth, and when I turned around I could hear her in the next room break off a conversation with one of her friends to ask my brother to bring up more cups from the basement. At the same time my dad was delivering cocktails to a few of his buddies, who were teasing him about being an old Hungarian wearing green for St. Patrick’s Day. “Everybody’s Irish at the Corned Beef Fest!” he joked in return. “We even have some Bailey’s for dessert!” He gave them a wink as he made his way back into the kitchen to lift a couple of huge slabs of meat out of the pot of simmering water. Then, after a solid hour or more of pre-meal partying, a remarkable thing happened. A murmur rippled through the several rooms of the house that had people in them; the TV was muted; folks began to move toward the kitchen, but the boisterous noise of a moment ago seemed to drop a decibel or two. Now almost everyone at the Corned Beef Fest was Catholic, but even those who weren’t understood and respected the importance of this ritual. The kitchen table was laden with the delicious food of the Fest, but first we were going to say grace, a brief Catholic prayer that just about everyone knew. Some people stood around the table, but of course there wasn’t enough room for everyone; we squished together in the other part of the kitchen, in the dining room, in the foyer, even spilling over into the living room, and for a few brief moments the noise and bustle of the party hushed and everyone stopped what they were doing or saying to ask for God’s blessing. Hearing all those voices praying in unison made you feel like you were in church, but instead of the heavy scent of incense, it was the wonderful aroma of a corned beef dinner that wafted our prayer to heaven. Whatever a person’s individual belief, this blessing was a special thing. My dad always added an extra “thank you” to the Lord for the gathering of all these really good friends at this really good meal. And now—let’s eat!
A line formed as we moved around the table, buffet-style. I tried to take very small portions of everything—corned beef, two kinds of cabbage, shepherd’s pie, potatoes, green beans—but by the time I got around to the bread there was no room on my loaded plate. “I’ll never finish even half of this!” I exclaimed to no one in particular. “Don’t worry, hon,” assured a friend of my mom’s who was behind me in line. “When food is really good, you find a way to make room for it!” We laughed, agreed that there are no calories at the Corned Beef Fest, and continued to pile on the food. I found some old friends at the dining room table, cousins actually, whom I hadn’t seen since last year’s Fest. I had to steal a folding chair from the living room to squeeze in at the table, and then I commenced to dig in and catch up. It was late at night when the last coat was fetched and the final guest departed.
At the last Corned Beef Fest in 2009, my parents welcomed over 50 guests into their home, and my mom cooked (I would not have believed this had she not told me herself) a staggering 75 pounds of Really Good Corned Beef. Our friend Herb sang Irish folk songs, and my husband accompanied him on the guitar. My mom bought long strings of green beads and plastic green hats for people to wear. Mom and Dad wore matching green aprons with shamrocks embroidered on them. At some point during the evening, as my mom later told us, my dad looked around at this wonderful gathering of family and friends and whispered to her, “I think this will be the last one.” Maybe he thought the Corned Beef Fest had reached the point of perfection and couldn’t possibly get any better. He passed away that November, so I guess he was right. It had been a good run. Really good.