By Susan DeGrane
It's 7:30 in the morning on the day of the South Side Irish Parade. The parade, which runs south on Western from 103rd to 115th, doesn't begin until noon, and Saint Patrick's Day is still five days away, but the smell of corned beef simmering in five-gallon pots pervades the Beverly home of Elaine McLaughlin, who got up at 5:30 to continue preparations to feed 100.
"I've got eight burners going, four in the kitchen, four on the stove in the basement," says the 43-year-old, who appears full of energy, despite having stayed up past midnight the night before. "I spent last night running up and down the steps. I had to keep checking, making sure the meat simmered slowly. Too fast and it gets tough. I don't sleep with things cooking on the stove."
McLaughlin's home is immaculate, with fresh vacuum tracks on the carpets and a dining room table festooned with green foil shamrocks, green cakes, and other treats. At the back of the house, in a frigid glassed-in porch, the 65 pounds of corned beef cooked the night before monopolizes a large table. The meat has been wrapped in heavy-duty foil so it can be reheated. "We'll eat what's cooking now first," McLaughlin explains.
Eventually she dresses her six-year-old son and herself in warm clothing for a chilly ride on a parade float. Her mother takes over cooking the remaining 35 pounds of beef.
They're not alone in this ritual. Though ethnically diverse, the south-side Beverly and Mount Greenwood neighborhoods are heavily Irish. Here Irish lace covers many windows. Cement lawn ducks wear green coats and hats with shamrocks. Some families hang Irish flags from front porches and even paint their sidewalks and dye their pets green for Saint Patrick's Day. But perhaps the most telling sign of the Irish presence is what happens at County Fair, the family-owned grocery at 10800 S. Western. It sells six tons of corned beef in the first half of March.
"It's like the whole world converges on this one store for corned beef," says Kenneth Kohn, the sales manager for City Foods, a Chicago-based meat distributor that supplies County Fair with those 12,000 pounds of Bea's Best kosher-style corned beef. "It's unbelievable. The only store that comes close is Restaurant Depot, which is like a warehouse for small restaurants. And this is just a little store."
"The Friday and Saturday before the parade are our biggest days," says Mike Benson, one of three butchers at County Fair. This year the store sold approximately five tons of corned beef before the parade and expected to sell another ton in the time remaining before Saint Patrick's Day.
On Saturday morning, Benson and the others move quickly in the refrigerated cutting room, cleaving excess fat off the brisket, placing the meat in plastic bags, weighing it, slapping on bar codes before handing it to customers.
Most simply show up for 8-, 12-, and 20-pound orders. But a few like McLaughlin call in for 60 and 100 pounds. "Last year we had a Mrs. Dey who ordered 120 pounds," says Benson.
Benson, 37, came to the Chicago area in 1989 from a small Irish village called Adare, near Cork. Now living in Elk Grove Village, he commutes to the Beverly store, where he speaks Gaelic to some customers. He speaks English with a brogue, reciting "da rule o' tumb fer how much ta buy, one pound per person on account o' the shrinkage," and two basic methods for cooking corned beef. Stove top: "Cover da meat with water, bring to a boil, then turn down so it's simmerin' away nice and slowly, 45 minutes to a pound." Or baking: "Remember tree, tree, and tree. Tree cups o' water, tree-hundred degrees, tree hours fer a six- or seven-pound piece o' beef."
"Fifteen years ago, my dad got into the bulk corned beef because of the parade," says Tom Baffes, the store's manager and son of Bill Baffes, the owner. "We just got lucky with Mike. He's been here close to ten years, and he really took to the store."
Outside, County Fair's 60 parking slots are jammed with cars. Inside, a line of shoppers forms in front of the meat case. Though it's crowded, the mood in the store is festive, with several shoppers appearing to know one another, some calling out greetings.
Kevin Cronin waits patiently at the meat case for seven pounds of corned beef. "My wife was cooking this stuff last night, but this morning she said, 'You better get more.' I guess we've got some big eaters."
Annette McKian is waiting for 30 pounds, which she plans to boil, then bake in a brown-sugar-and-mustard glaze "for people who just stop in after the parade. It's like an open house. You invite your friends and neighbors."
The parade's been around for 22 years, but the tradition of serving corned beef to family and neighbors afterward is relatively new. "The Irish usually don't eat corned beef for Saint Patrick's," says Cronin. "My grandparents were from Ireland, a town called Claire in the county of Cork. They never did have corned beef. They had some other beef dish with vegetables."
While many shopping carts hold cabbage, new potatoes, rye bread, Irish soda bread, and the special brine-soaked beef seasoned heavily with garlic, peppercorns, and bay leaf, at least one does not.
"I'm not cooking this stuff for after the parade because nobody would show up," says Jim Wognum. "It's just me and my mother. I'm going to go over to a place where they have it. Somebody named Donovan. In this neighborhood, everybody knows a Donovan."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.