Dan Hazley has been making his Irish stew for years. “I got the recipe from my aunt Mary, my dad’s sister,” said Hazley. “It’s made with beef. I only get to make it a couple of times a year. I always knew it was pretty good. I just didn’t know whether anyone else would think so.”
So do they? You bet they do. Hazley’s Irish stew was this year’s winner, in the amateur category, of the Irish Stew Cook-Off at Finnigan’s Wake. The savory cook-off is sponsored annually by the Hibernian Hunger Project.
Better yet, Hazley—who represented Ancient Order of Hibernians Division 87 of Port Richmond in the all-you-can-eat event—shared honors with a good friend, chef Mary Kate McCaughey of Fishtown’s great little Irish eaterie called Ida Mae’s (2302 E. Norris St.). Mary Kate picked up a first in the professional category.
Dan may have his aunt Mary to thank, but Mary Kate credits her mother-in-law Veronica. “It’s her recipe,” she said. And it’s as authentic as Irish stew gets. Her husband Feargus, co-owner of Ida Mae’s, is from just outside of Belfast. He’s one of 11 children—the only one to have left Ireland. So when Mary Kate decided to enter the cook-off, she called her mother-in-law. “I said, ‘I need your beef stew recipe.’ She said, ‘Honey, it’s lamb. You don’t make Irish stew with beef.'”
So, like any good daughter-in-law, she listened. Good thing. Her savory concoction was top drawer—and the judges clearly agreed.
Mary Kate can also thank the winner on the amateur side. “I did the air conditioning in their restaurant,” said Hazley. “Their food is just phenomenal. (The Inquirer’s Craig LaBan agreed.) Their chowder is really great. So I suggested that she enter. She’s a neighborhood girl, so it’s nice to see her do well.”
Of course, lots of other folks did well, too. Here are the 2nd and 3rd place finishers:
2. Finnigan’s Wake
3. Tir na Nog
2. Phil Bowdren, AOH Division 51 (Fishtown)
3. Denny Gaw, AOH Division 2 (Horsham, Montgomery County)
Regardless of the objections of Mary Kate’s mother-in-law, more than a few of those stews (including the amateur winner, of course) contained beef.
Probably the most unusual stew was Denny Gaw’s. Denny, the AOH board president, went traditional … but only to an extent. His stew contained lamb as its main ingredient, but his was the only one not gravy-based. “Mine is cream-based,” he said. “I got the recipe 10 years ago. We were in Ireland, doing the Ring of Kerry. We stopped at a restaurant … it was up on a mountaintop, a mom-and-pop place. I ordered this stew, and it was great, so I asked them for the recipe … and they gave it to me! I make it all the time.”
This year’s contestants—six in each category—had quite an appreciative audience. For five bucks, they could sample all the stews in the place. (And a lot of the contestants included a good-sized slab of soda or brown bread.) The place was jammed.
Among the guests sopping up brown gravy out of little plastic bowls was Rowan Fealy, a lecturer in the department of geography at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. He and partner Dr. Laura McElwain, who works for the Ireland meteorological service Met Eireann, had arrived at Finnigan’s earlier in the evening to delivery a presentation on climate change and its impact on Ireland. Happily, they were able to take in the stew cook-off as well. “This is just an added bonus,” Rowan said. “It’s great. It’s got everything an Irish male looks for … beer and food. It’s perfect!”
Another guest was Geralyn Keating, director of the Irish American Cultural Institute in Morristown, N.J. “We came for the lecture, and then we got all this, too,” she said. “It was a winner.”
Of course, the big winner was the Hibernian Hunger Project, which takes the evening’s proceeds and funnels them back into the group’s many local activities, including Aid for Friends. “We do an annual ‘cook-in’ for about 200 shut-ins through Aid for Friends,” said Ed Dougherty the national and Philadelphia county chairman. “Their cooks go away in the sumer, so we go up and do bulk meals for them.”
The ninth annual cook-in takes place at the Aid for Friends facility in Northeast Philadelphia on Saturday, March 29, starting at 9 a.m. and ending … whenever they’re finished. To volunter, contact Donna Donnelly at KDDFAM@aol.com.