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  • Writer's pictureW.M. Tarrant

An Irish Protestant at the Knights of Columbus

I wasn’t afraid. Well, not much, but I could feel the stares and hear the muttering.

A few days previous, a friend asked if I wanted to go with him to KFC. Sure, why not? I could enjoy a little fried chicken. Then he set me straight. Not KFC but K of C, the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic fraternal organization. See, St. Patrick’s Day was approaching, and he had a couple of tickets for the Knights of Columbus corned beef and cabbage supper and wondered if I’d like to go. May not be as good as fried chicken, but I was up for a new culinary experience, so I agreed.

What? Wait a minute! An Irishman who never had corned beef and cabbage? It was true. My family, though full Irish on my father’s side, didn’t follow Irish customs. Come to find out, my family was not off-track concerning corned beef and cabbage because it did not originate in Ireland. Huh? But it is served on St. Patrick’s Day, so it must be Irish! Well, in a sense it is. Irish immigrants adapted the dish from Jewish immigrants and transformed it into their own. Like Jewish and Italian and other immigrants, the Irish often faced discrimination and were forced to live in slum neighborhoods. It was here, in the Jewish delis, that they discovered corned beef which they thought was similar to Irish bacon. Pork was more often eaten in Ireland than beef since pork was cheaper and cows were valued for their milk. Cabbage was also a cost-effective food and it could be cooked in the same pot as the corned beef. So the “traditional” corned beef and cabbage actually originated in the United States.

Back to the story: St. Patrick’s Day arrived and my friend picked me up as promised and headed to the KC Hall where the parking lot was already full. Once inside the darkened, low-ceilinged room filled with long tables we found a couple of seats. After some talk and announcements by an emcee, while the room was still quiet during that brief lull after a speech and before hubbub begins, my friend, who was not shy, stood up and announced that I was an Irish Protestant, but “we would put up with him anyway.” Yeah, thanks! I wanted to hide beneath the table as I could already feel the stares and hear the mumbling and snickering. I just hopedviolence wouldn’t ensue.

They did let me stay, maybe a bit begrudgingly, and let me partake of their food. I’ll admit, the corned beef and cabbage was good, though not a meal I’d want on a regular basis. In fact, come to think of it, I haven’t had it since and that was about 40 years ago. As soon as the meal was finished, tables and chairs were pushed aside and seemingly out of nowhere gambling equipment appeared as if it had sprung from the walls. Roulette wheels, dice, cards, slot machines, a regular casino came to life. And just as quickly men gathered around the various devices like farm animals at a feeding trough, money in hand. I only knew how to play Old Maid and, believe me, that was not on the agenda, so I just observed as the other fellows won and lost money.

I kept checking the entrance expecting the cops to burst in at any instant for gambling was illegal in the state at that time. I knew I’d be busted, too, from association. But OK, there was the police chief himself throwing dice alongside the priest. We were safe.

My friend, thankfully, was not much of a gambler so he was ready to go early in the evening. I had escaped without harm, did not get food poisoning, and didn’t get busted for gambling, so it was a good evening. And obviously one I’ve not forgotten.

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