Next Tuesday morning, after the three Hannigan boys have pulled and dragged each other all over the living room in the quest for presents, I will go rooting beneath the tree. There, I will (hopefully) find a long, thin rectangular-shaped box with my name on it, just like I have on every one of the last 12 Christmases since we moved to New York. I will pick it up and shake it gently just to be sure it is what I think it is. Then, while the children are otherwise occupied, I will stealthily carry it to a safe corner of the house, tear off the paper, rip open the box, inhale the scent of chocolate, and start salivating.
This is what a Cadbury’s Selection Box can do to a grown man in exile. It forces him to regress to childhood. The responsible father of three is transformed into a starving bear who has happened upon an abandoned picnic hamper after three days without food. Before Christmas breakfast, sometimes before dawn, and definitely before any of my greedy cubs can ask me to share, I will scarf down some Buttons or carefully pick apart a Flake. I will close my eyes as I do so and, for a few precious moments, I will suddenly be three thousand miles away, in the Cork home of my childhood. A little boy once more.
This is what food can do when you live away from home. This is the power it retains even after more than a decade. It has the ability to dredge up memories and to transport. The mere sight of the Selection Box my wife sources each year, never mind the taste of the delightful contents within, inevitably brings to mind my own father and mother. I can still see them bleary-eyed on the couch, embers smouldering in last night’s fire, as they watch their sons and daughters tear into Santa’s bounty every one of those magical Christmas mornings that now seem so, so long ago. Some of the people from that room have died. The rest of us have changed. In many ways, only the Selection Box endures, a link to a time past.
The news earlier this week that Toronto’s first Irish food store is doing a roaring trade would have come as no surprise to the longer-serving members of the diaspora. Absence and distance make the heart and the palate grow fonder. Especially at this time of year when, no matter how much you’ve put down roots in another place, the very mention of a Cork Yuletide delicacy like spiced beef can start you waxing nostalgic and wondering about home. Not just about Christmas either but, by extension, about what life might have been like if you’d have never left.
Like so many emigrants, I was warned before my departure that exile can have strange effects on people. One person assured me that the moment I got on the plane I would start to develop a curious affection for maudlin Irish folk songs. I laughed in his face. Of course, today I have several CDs in the car and an inexplicable fondness for the poignancy of “Spancil Hill” that prove my friend right. The same lesson applies to food as it does to music.
The newly-arrived Irish in Canada will wander into that shop in Toronto and find themselves undergoing the oddest experiences. The very presence of familiar brand names on the shelves will be enough to spur them into emotional rather than rational purchases. They will end up going back to houses and apartments they do not yet call home, laden with foodstuffs they never even touched when they lived in Ireland. There is no scientific reason why they will do this. They just will.
I know this to be true because, over the years, I’ve developed a bizarre taste for Erin Potato Soup. Never ate it when I was in Ireland. Never would have thought of making it when I was in Ireland. But, I saw it in the international food aisle of a supermarket here one day and I found myself drawn to the packaging that somehow reminded me of accompanying my mother to Dunnes Stores in Bishopstown every Thursday night until I was old enough to refuse to go. Now, a steaming bowl of this soup is a beloved staple on refrigerated Long Island winter days when the snow is piled up outside.
Over the years I have found myself going through customs on the way back from Ireland carrying all manner of produce: sausages, rashers, salmon, Taytos, a loaf of Brennan’s Bread, Mikado Biscuits, Cadbury’s Roses, and, of course, boxes and boxes of Barry’s Tea bags. Indeed, I’ve also been known to pay $8 for a small box of Barry’s Tea if I spot it in a supermarket around here. Even in a recession, there are occasions when you just have to splurge. You aren’t buying food. You are buying a piece of who you used to be.
One time I brought my wife some Hunky Dory Sour Cream and Onion crisps from Dublin. Aside from the fact they were a lot cheaper than perfume, I knew they would take her back. And they did. The second she opened the first packet, she was reminded of a time in the early years of our marriage when hangover-beating crisp sandwiches were considered the perfect Sunday brunch, when home was a childless, carefree, rented basement flat off the main drag in Dun Laoghaire. She devoured them, surrounded by noisy children, wondering why Mommy and Daddy were sitting in the kitchen with such faraway looks in their eyes. Processed food as sense memory.
As we were leaving the eastern Long Island seaside town of Montauk after a day out last summer, I was getting ready for the long drive home when I spotted that a shop on the main street had a sign advertising Irish produce. I pulled over and nipped in but the shelves were kind of bare, save for a box of Crunchies. The holy grail. I grabbed it and came back to the car where the natives were growing restless. Until I handed out these bars of gold.
There followed half an hour of contented oohing and aahing. Where normally there would be fighting and arguing and name-calling, there was just the pleasant sounds of children savouring the chocolate honey-combed magnificence in their hands. That the 18-month old was painting his face a fast-melting brown didn’t bother me in the slightest. It was such a wonder to hear them all being quiet.
“Why are you guys being so good?” I asked.
“We love Irish candy,” they chorused in their 100 per cent proof American accents. “We just love it.”
As they’ll discover if they catch me secretly wolfing down the Crunchie from my Selection Box on Christmas morning, so do I. So do I.
(This piece first appeared in the Irish Daily Mail on December 21st)