Monday, March 14, 2011

Ronald Reagan, Tip O'Neill, and the Origins of the Annual St. Patrick's Day Luncheon

On March 17, President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner will attend the annual St. Patrick’s Day Luncheon at the U.S. Capital, a tradition that dates back to 1983 when Thomas “Tip” O’Neill hosted a bipartisan lunch for President Ronald Reagan and other House and Senate members.

The House reportedly arranged that luncheon to ease tensions between O'Neill and Reagan, both of whom were intensely proud of their Irish-American roots but couldn't have been more politically or idealogically different. According to a political columnist for The Washington Post:

O'Neill and Reagan were oil and water. O'Neill was raised with a firm belief in Roosevelt's New Deal and the power (and necessity) of government to make a difference in average peoples' lives. Reagan's entire governing philosophy was an implicit rejection of the New Deal. Clashes, predictably, ensued.

Reagan's victory heralded the end of Democrats' vice-grip on Congress and began nearly three decades in which Republicans held the White House for all but eight years. As Democrats sought to dust themselves off from the 1980 electoral defeat, it was O'Neill who stepped in the leadership void to take on Reagan day in and day out - ensuring that his party's vision was represented in the national debate.


In the process, O'Neill effectively moved the speakership from "the back rooms of Congress to the television sets of the country by installing himself as Reagan's prime antagonist." Yet, for all their fierce and very public political debates, the two Irish-American politicians developed an amicable personal relationship that was evident in the days leading up to that first St. Paddy's Day Luncheon in 1983.

“I’m going to cook you some Boston corned beef, and I’m going to have an Irish storyteller there,” O’Neill promised Reagan, to which the president reportedly quipped, “I’ll have to polish up some new Irish jokes.”

Although O'Neill didn't officially enter his recipe for Boston Corned Beef in the congressional record, you can whip up this simple recipe for Corned Beef and Cabbage for your next St. Paddy's luncheon or other large social gathering:

3 1/2 pounds corned beef brisket or plain beef brisket
15 peppercorns
8 whole cloves
1 bay leaf
Salt, if using plain brisket
2 medium sized turnips, peeled and quartered
4 red new potatoes, peeled and quartered
3 carrots, cut into thirds and quartered lengthwise
1 small head cabbage, cut into fourths

Put the brisket in a 5 or 6 quart Dutch oven and cover with an inch of water. If you are using corned beef brisket and it does not come already packed in seasoning, add peppercorns, cloves, and a bay leaf to the pot. If using plain brisket, add a teaspoon of salt for every quart of water. Bring to a simmer and then cover, lower the heat until it is barely simmering. Keep at a low simmer for four hours or until the meat is tender (a fork goes through easily).

Remove meat and set aside. Add vegetables to the pot. Check the broth for taste. If it is too salty, add a little more water to taste. Raise the temperature and bring the soup to a high simmer. Cook at a high simmer until done, about 15-30 minutes longer, depending on the size of the cut of your vegetables. Slice the meat in thin slices against the grain. Serve with horseradish or mustard or both.

FOOD FACT: Although the official menu for the 1983 luncheon has proved mighty difficult to find, obamafoodorama.com tells us that menu items for the 2009 St. Paddy's Day Luncheon included Terrine of Smoked Salmon, Crab and Avocado with Yellow Pepper Coulis, and Cheese Straws as appetizers with Lamb Chops Provencal and Madeira Sauce as the Main Entree. Side dishes included Crispy Fried Potatoes and Fondue of Vegetables followed by Ghirardelli Chocolate Praline Mousse and freshly baked "Shamrock Cookies" for dessert!