The month of March is jam-packed with rituals of revelry and piety around the world, always with food and drink. On the American calendar is “March Madness,” a month-long college basketball playoff season with an accompanying nationwide frenzy over bouncing a large ball and tossing it into a 10-foot high net just barely wide enough for it go through. It’s also the biggest sports-betting event besides the Super Bowl. Hot dogs, burritos, pizza, nachos, and beer are the foods of the day. Balancing the sacred and the profane, Carnivals throughout the Latino world from Spain to North and South America mount festivals on the day before Lent, which varies from year to year according to the sun, moon, and stars, with blowout parties and lots of food before pulling back to soberly contemplate serious religious matters for the next 40 days leading up to Easter–the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.
In Catalonia, Spain, their spring calçot onions, a regional produce prize that look a lot like robust scallions, are grilled and dipped in Romesco sauce for the Calçotada Festival, with plenty of wine on the “side.” In New Orleans, Louisiana, on Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) colorful bead bracelets and necklaces accompany gumbos, jambalayas, oysters, shrimp, and crawfish along with bourbon and other imbibements to the beat of bon temps music. All around the world, Passover (which confusingly sometimes occurs in April) heralds the triumphal exodus of Jews from Egyptian oppression and continues for seven days with dishes that are now American cuisine: matzo balls, latkes, beef brisket (not corned), and ritual, rather than Bacchanalian, wine drinking.
There are also fixed dates on the March Madness calendar, not dependent on the movement of heavenly bodies, that resonate within the spring psyche. One, the 15th of March, the Ides, was a day for Romans to take joy in the arrival of spring with food and drink. As it happened, on that date in 44 b.c.e., Brutus and a congregation of cohorts betrayed Julius Caesar and stabbed him to death, thereby putting a damper on the celebratory aspect of the day and precipitating a series of civil wars leading to the transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. Shakespeare captured the import of the event with his cautionary words: “beware the Ides of March.”
Two calendar days later, St. Patrick, the patron of Ireland, who introduced Christianity and overcame the pagan Druids (sometimes pictured as snakes), is honored with a hearty meal of corned beef and cabbage. Hail the Irish, who brought the dish to American cuisine, along with heady Irish whiskey; hefty, smooth Irish stouts; and potatoes as daily sustenance. Here’s the recipe as my mother, who was part Irish, always made it on March 17.
Serves 6 to 8
3- to 4-pound corned beef brisket
1/2 medium onion, cut in half
2 whole cloves
1 cup white wine
8 cups filtered water, plus more if needed
1 medium green cabbage, quartered, cored, and cut into 1/2-inch wide shreds
8 small potatoes, such as Yukon golds or fingerlings, halved
1. Place the corned beef in a pressure cooker or large pot. Stick a clove in each onion piece and add to the pot, along with the wine and water barely to cover.
If using a pressure cooker, lock on the lid and bring to pressure over high heat. Cook for 1 hour then remove from the heat and let stand 15 minutes for the pressure to subside. Gently release any remaining pressure and lift off the lid.
If using a regular stove top pot, bring to a boil over high heat. Decrease the heat to maintain a gentle simmer with small bubbles, partially cover, and cook until the meat shreds easily, 2 1/2 to 3 hours.
2. Transfer the corned beef to a plate and set aside in a warm place. Lift out and discard the onion pieces.
3. Add the potatoes to the broth and bring to a boil. Cook over medium-high heat until pierceable, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the cabbage and continue cooking until the vegetables are tender, 8 to 10 minutes more.
4. Transfer the cabbage and potatoes to a platter. Carve the corned beef across the grain into 1/4-inch thick slices and and arrange them over the vegetables. Spoon some of the broth over all and serve.