Valencia Menard, known to many as “Aunt Val,” welcomes visitors into her kitchen–green tablecloth, shamrocks on the fridge and walls, oven mitts decorated with shamrocks. She and husband, Gerry, are all dressed in green. But Val and Gerry aren’t Irish. “Oh no!” says Gerry.
Val and Gerry are French Canadian Americans, and growing up in Maine, their families spoke only French. On ordinary days, Val is more likely to be preparing pâté chinois (shepherd’s pie) or tourtière (pork pie). But today is different. “Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, right?” Val says. “‘Cause I’m definitely not Irish!”
Val is making a St. Paddy’s Day feast–corned beef with onions, carrots, turnips, and potatoes–and the house smells of spices and simmering meat. In the oven, Irish soda bread is baking. In the fridge, her popular lime Jell-O salad is gelling, and the pickled beets are ready to serve. For dessert: nutmeg-scented sugar cookies. Val was one of 16 children. Her godmother, Lorina, handed the corned-beef recipe down to Val. “I’ve used it all my married years,” she says, “and I’ve passed it down to everyone who has sampled it at my house.”
Val, 84, and Gerry, 85, live in Brunswick, Maine. Their first date was at their high-school prom, and they married soon after, moving into Gerry’s house. Gerry is the third generation to raise his family here. The house isn’t large, and neither is the kitchen, which Val calls “the pantry.” Nevertheless, on days like this, they can still squeeze 15 hungry family members around their kitchen table.
“Our Aunt Val is the keeper of family recipes,” her niece Mona had told us earlier. “There’s always a hug, a meal, and lots of conversation anytime you visit. When it’s time to leave, she loads us up with bags of goodies as one more reminder that we were with her.”
The feast comes out of its pot. Val arranges the vegetables in an oval around the meat–carrots in front, cabbage to the left, turnips to the right, potatoes in back–and pours the juices into a pitcher. The aroma of corned beef drifts through the house. After grace, silence falls as the meal begins. The meat is moist, flavorful, and spicy; the vegetables firm and touched with the tang of the meat and spices. The family passes the pickled beets, the Jell-O salad, and Val’s “Erin horseradish sauce”; the soda bread is cut hot. A little chorus of mmmms goes around.
Will Val follow up with red-flannel hash, the traditional way to prepare corned-beef leftovers? “I’ve never made it,” she replies.
“But then what do you do with the leftovers?” I ask.
“There never are any,” she says, her French eyes smiling.