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Celebrating the New Irish Cuisine

Yes, the food is elegant, and no, the beer is not green

Forget the corned-beef and cabbage jokes, and don’t bother asking for a green Budweiser. This week the second annual Gaelic Gourmet Gala at the Hotel Commonwealth will celebrate Irish cuisine. And if you think Irish food is nothing to celebrate, you haven’t been keeping up.

“That cliché of an Irish dinner being a six-pack and a potato — that’s been a misnomer for years,” insists Michael Quinlin of the Boston Irish Tourism Association, which is among the event sponsors. Boiled food has been out of style for decades, and corned beef barely exists anymore. Instead, Irish cooking now shows a strong European influence. “After Ireland joined the European Union in the late ’70s, they began sending unemployed youth to the Continent, where they learned to cook,” Quinlin says. “Ten years later they came back as gourmet chefs. And they saw what an amazing bounty of ingredients they had at their disposal — fresh lamb, homegrown vegetables, and the world’s best dairy products.”

The new trend was popularized largely by the late Noel Cullen, a Boston University School of Hospitality Administration professor. In 2001, a year before his death, he published the seminal book Elegant Irish Cooking. Cullen brought Ireland’s richer and more eclectic dishes to light, and last year’s gala was held in his memory. Celebrity chefs from Ireland and the United States will team up again this year to offer their signature dishes. Those attending can look forward to such exotic creations as suckling pig and trotter with pommes maxime by Kevin Thornton, of Thornton’s Restaurant in Dublin, and from Noel McMeel, of Castle Leslie in Monaghan, Ireland, filet of beef with traditional champ (creamed potatoes), slow-roasted mushrooms, cabbage, and bacon, with a gravy base of Guinness stout — definitely not for those on a macrobiotic diet.

The new Irish cuisine is part of a wide-ranging change in the country’s culture, according to Elizabeth Shannon, director of BU’s Trustee Scholars Program and International Visitors Program and an expert on Irish culture. Shannon’s husband, the late William V. Shannon (Hon.’76), was U.S. ambassador to Ireland from 1977 to 1981, when he joined the BU faculty. In 1988 she established the William V. Shannon Fellowship in his memory.

“There has been a silent revolution going on,” says Shannon, who believes that Ireland’s joining the European Union made the country more affluent, if somewhat less Irish. “You can walk down Grafton Street, one of the main shopping streets in Dublin, and every third store is the same thing you’d see in a mall in Boston. The Eastern Europeans have found more access to work in Ireland, so there has been an influx of Poles and Romanians. The streets of Dublin have become multiethnic, and multilingual as well.”

The unfortunate news, says Shannon, is that Ireland has also become more expensive. “When I was there recently, one company was advertising a 10-day tour for $11,000,” she says. “It used to be impossible to spend that much.”

Yet Ireland holds tight to its culture, and the new affluence means more money for government support of the arts. “People have more access to grants to produce their plays or write their novels,” says Shannon. “There’s a deep-seated respect for those arts. If you’re a 20-year-old kid sitting in the pub and you say you’re a poet, you won’t get laughed at. Somebody will probably buy you a pint.”

The European influence also has also meant a stronger feminist movement, as women have moved into higher-level jobs and the government. And yes, the food has improved, a lot. “People growing up now have money they didn’t have 30 years ago,” Shannon says, “and eating better goes along with that.”

Despite all that, Shannon reports, some tourists still come to Dublin expecting corned beef and Riverdance. “That will always happen,” she says, “just as people come to Boston and start looking for Cheers.”

This year’s Gaelic Gourmet Gala is from 7 to 10 p.m. on Friday, March 16, at the Hotel Commonwealth, 500 Commonwealth Ave., in Kenmore Square. The cost is $100 per person, which includes cooking demonstrations, hors d’oeuvres, wine, beer, and cocktails, and complimentary parking. For more information, visit http://www.hotelcommonwealth.com/gala/index.html.