By Stephen McKinley
Homesick? Take a trip to your local Irish deli, and the sight of Irish food might help: in Irish neighborhoods all over New York and beyond, these gaudy little stores provide immigrants with a direct link to home: food from the old country.
For the Irish, it’s things like Kerry Gold butter, Galtee tender cure bacon in half-pound packs, batch bread with its green white and orange logo, black and white pudding made by several competing companies — all the ingredients for a breakfast that could keep you going all day — as well as Heinz beans, Bachelor’s soups, Barrie’s tea and that alleged legendary hangover cure, Lucozade, now available in different flavors.
While people may gripe about the Guinness overseas, and how “the only decent pint is back home,” in the Irish delis, the food has been disappearing off the shelves without any complaints for years.
That said, New York’s rich ethnic mix has produced some interesting Irish deli fusions.
A walk through some of the city’s Irish neighborhoods brings one face to face with such curiosities as an Irish-Norwegian store, or an Irish deli run by a Palestinian.
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Just as often, however, the delis are Irish-owned, making them truly as Irish, as, well, the soda bread on the shelves.
All of the stores are familiar: usually with an awning, they are a riot of colors, and often the glass windows are completely obscured with posters boasting their wares: “All Irish products,” or “Irish foods here.”
“Decent butter,” said Jim Lynch, a Sunnyside resident leaving the Butcher’s Block on Queen’s Boulevard, when asked what product he missed the most from Ireland.
“American butter just doesn’t do it for me,” he added, shaking his head with exaggerated disgust.
Inside, in a cooler were slabs and tubs of precious Kerry Gold butter. Lynch had been stocking up, alongside a line of other Irish customers.
Several import companies in the tri-state area bring Irish products into the U.S. regularly.
“We opened almost eight years ago,” said owner Noel Gaynor from County Mayo, sporting a white butcher’s coat, and taking a moment out from behind his counter. On the floor was a good sprinkling of sawdust, just like the butcher’s shops back in Ireland and his staff were busy with customers.
“We have all that you’d expect. Chef sauce, HP sauce, tea, Galtee bacon, sausages from Ireland and store-made sausages,” he said, noting that the store-made sausages were a bit cheaper than the imports.
“We have 78 varieties of Jacob’s biscuits as well,” he added. “Mi Wadi orange juice is selling fairly fast in this hot weather.” Gaynor said he stocks up his products about every two or three weeks.
In this mixed neighborhood, he reckoned that maybe half his customers were Irish, the rest of his clients were people from “all over the world.”
A few doors away, also on Queen’s Boulevard at 42nd Street, stood the Cherry Valley deli, run by a Korean man who gave his name as Jimmy.
A Korean flag behind the counter and photographs of Jimmy out on the golf course decorated the walls. On a television, Jimmy was keeping one eye on a women’s golf tournament while serving up sliced ham to some of his regular Irish customers.
“Irish products? Look around you,” he said waving his hand toward his shelves stocked with Weetabix, Alpen, Bird’s custard, Heinz soups and Bisto: enough to make any immigrant homesick — while at the same time consoling the lonesome Irish heart.
Jimmy reckoned that his fastest turnover was with Tayto cheese and onion chips, with which he stocks up every week. In Ireland, chips are called crisps, and Jimmy had no trouble understanding that they could mean the same thing.
He also pointed to Irish black and white pudding and more Galtee tender cure in his freezer. He declined to comment on whether he liked such acquired tastes as black and white pudding.
Candy was especially popular, Jimmy explained, pointing at his stock of skittles sweets and a limited edition Cadbury’s Milk Tray chocolate selection.
“I just miss the sweets,” said Mairead O’Neill, who lives near both Jimmy’s Cherry Valley deli and the Butcher’s Block. “And the Tayto crisps too. It’s not a homesick thing, it’s just nice to remember something you grew up with,” she explained.
“Used to be when I’d go home, I would stock up on stuff and bring it back,” said another Sunnyside resident, who gave his name as Damien.
“I’d always be scared at getting caught with bacon going through customs. I finally realized I could get nearly everything I missed right here.”
In Woodlawn, in the Bronx, the Irish deli appears to be having a renaissance, with several new stores opening in recent years, as well as having some of the city’s most well-loved and established Irish stores, such as Sean’s Deli and the Irish Bakery on Katonah Avenue. The Irish Bakery — New York’s oldest — recently celebrated 20 years in business. Sean’s Quality Deli has attracted customers for years with its slogan, “All things good and Irish.” Nearby is Tri-Edy’s Deli and Tesco Ireland — no connection to the UK supermarket chain.
But the city’s youngest deli is Molly’s of Maspeth, on 65th Place in Maspeth, Queens.
Owner Oliver Muldoon, from County Offaly, opened Molly’s on July 10 and expected a slow start to his business.
Instead, he said things had been “so busy last week.” Muldoon could barely remember whether he had been open one week or two, because things had been so fast paced since he opened his doors to the public.
“We have all the Irish products you’d expect here,” he added.
Back up north, just over the border from the Bronx into Yonkers, is another recent Irish addition, Siopa Beag on McLean Avenue. It’s name is Irish for corner shop, and it is run by Donegal man Eugene Collum.
“We do hot plates and sausages, they’re very popular,” said Collum, who opened his door in February of this year.
But it is to Brooklyn you have to go, for some of the most unusual combinations of Irish with other ethnicities: take the R train down Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue to Bayridge.
Bayridge in Brooklyn is historically home to Italian immigrants, and some of the oldest stores on Fourth and Fifth Avenue are those with Italian names. At the same time as the Italians, or a little later, Norwegians and Irish arrived too, and so, between 78th and 79th Streets stands a blue awning with the name Mejlander and Mulgannon, perhaps the most unusual fusion of all.
Outside the shop front is an American flag, an Irish tricolor and a Norwegian flag, and inside, nestling next to Heinz beans, Bachelor’s soups and Weetabix, is an equally wide range of Norwegian delicacies: fancy some Gl