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On Something I Ate


Have Pie, Will Travel

By Patty Wetli

Best. Vacation. Ever. That’s what our trip to Ireland, timed to coincide with our tenth wedding anniversary, was supposed to be. This was the first foray outside the U.S. for both me and my husband, Dave, and it seemed long overdue, less a “bucket list” item than a monkey to get off our backs. All of our friends had been to Europe at least a time or two; the more annoying ones had studied abroad or biked through Latvia. That left us the travel equivalents of the “40-Year-Old Virgin,” and like most first-timers, we felt pressured to perform well.

We flopped right out of the gate, getting lost on our way out of the Shannon airport parking lot. As rain hit the windshield (excuse me, windscreen) of our rental car, we realized we had no idea how to work the wipers, which was the least of our worries, considering that we (and by we, I mean Dave) were now expected to drive on the wrong side of the road.

Why do people travel? I had posed this question to my journal back at the terminal in O’Hare, while waiting to board our flight. Frankly, I’m a less than ideal candidate. I like routine. I like to be in control. I like home. But I also rather schizophrenically feel compelled to see new places and have new experiences. Every so often the yin wins out over the yang, which explains what I was doing in County Clare.

Our first day was a jet-lagged fog and the second was just plain foggy. The guidebooks will tell you that Ireland is a wet place—that’s why it’s so lusciously green—yet I had refused to heed these warnings, partly because it was late August, but mostly because my aunt and uncle, who’d visited Ireland several times (naturally), had promised us that no matter how ominous the clouds, the sun would never fail to shine for at least part of the day. Blarney. As it turned out, the country was mired in one of the most miserable summers on record. It seems it hadn’t stopped raining since April and the locals, typically considered a genial lot, were as glum and chilly as the weather.

The guidebooks will also inform you that life in Ireland revolves around its pubs. That’s where we retreated for dinner on our second night, in Dingle. Soaked and chilled from a stormy afternoon of seaside sightseeing, in conditions best described as wild and woolly (ah, if only I had packed my woolens), we were seated at a table close to a small fireplace. Next to us was a French family—parents, two small children—the father with a menu in one hand and his English phrasebook in the other. At least we were less discombobulated than they.

Now here’s something Fodor’s and company don’t mention: The Irish have a sweet tooth. We discovered this after we finished our meal when, loathe to step back into the downpour, we decided to order dessert. The waiter proffered our options and lo, what was this…Banoffee Pie?

Banoffee Pie is a magical blend of banana and toffee and why it isn’t Ireland’s primary export is beyond me. (You’ll also see it spelled Banoffi—a mash up of banana and toffee that makes no sense.) I wouldn’t say it provided the turning point of our holiday—that came when I finally got a full night’s sleep—but the pie went a long way toward erasing the tension of the day.

Growing up, my family ate dessert every night. It didn’t matter if the treat was homemade lemon bars or graham crackers sandwiched with Duncan Hines frosting from a can, dinner was never complete without something sweet. At some point, probably when I started caring about my jeans size, I discontinued the practice. Baked goods and pastries became more of a reward than a common occurrence.

In Ireland, I gave myself free rein to indulge. As each new annoyance arose—hotel radiators that failed to emit heat, tourist attractions closed due to a Mad Cow outbreak—we countered it with butter and sugar. After having our car stampeded by a herd of cattle (more angry than Mad), a chocolate-chip scone hit the spot. After attempting to check into our bed and breakfast, only to find the hosts AWOL but their dog in full attack mode, pudding helped soothe our nerves. After another day of white-knuckle driving on two lane roads that were more like one and a half, with me yelling at Dave to stop hugging the expletive stone “hedge” on what passed for an expletive berm and him screaming back that he’d rather scrape the expletive hedge than hit another expletive car head-on, we called a truce over a piece of expletive delicious molten chocolate cake.

This was comfort food with a capital “C.” Comfort for what, it was hard to say. These mishaps and misadventures were no worse than anything we’d experienced on previous vacations. Perhaps that was part of the problem. The way people had insisted that we simply, positively must go to Europe, we had expected so much more from Ireland; I was convinced that nothing short of transcendence and transformation awaited us on the other side of the pond. And yet here we were, bickering like we always do whenever we’re forced to spend extended periods in a car.

Yet at the same time, the place did feel foreign. To be sure, the driving was a unique terror. (Not to belabor the nightmare of Irish roadways, but for the record I’d like to note that each county welcomes visitors with a sign announcing the tally of its highway fatalities. According to my notes, Limerick was the “winner” with 75.) But more than that, it was the way we were traveling, which seemed designed for maximum disorientation.

On our honeymoon, Dave and I established a pattern for our vacations that had held throughout our marriage—we picked a location (in that instance Jackson, Wyo.) set up a base camp and explored outward from there. No matter how far afield we wandered during the day (on that occasion, to Yellowstone and back), we always returned to the same bed at night, often with a cookie awaiting us on our pillows. Even during an extended road trip out West, we would plant ourselves at various points for three to four days, settling in to get the lay of the land, before moving on to the next site. In this way I’ve managed to accommodate the adventurer and the homebody—the yin and the yang—at the same time.

But Ireland was supposed to be special, and special, in my mind, translated to different. I planned an itinerary that had us ping-ponging between seven twee little towns in seven days. Every night found us lodging in a new hotel or B&B. While we covered a lot of ground—nearly all of the country’s western coast—this whirlwind circuit left us perpetually unmoored. In search of a constant, we settled on sweets.

On our penultimate night, in Galway, we ordered Banoffee Pie again, not because we were in need of solace or consolation but because it was that good. Our chatty waitress—finally some of that famed Irish friendliness on display—kindly shared her grandmother’s recipe. Cheesecake crust, toffee (made from boiling a can of condensed milk), bananas and whipped cream. This recipe was our lone souvenir.

Back in Chicago, the trip took on a life of its own, the way that vacations often do—both better and worse in the telling and re-telling than it actually was. Where I tend to recall the entire week as one long debacle, photographs and my journal suggest otherwise. (That wild and woolly afternoon of sightseeing was apparently downright thrilling.) If nothing had been quite as we’d imagined it would be, neither was it quite as we remembered.

Not even the pie. When my brother and sister-in-law visited us shortly after we returned from our journey, they brought along snapshots from their month-long tour of Europe, which roughly coincided with and, frankly, partially prompted our own trip. We ooh-ed and aah-ed over France and Austria, Spain and the Netherlands, all of which appeared as picture-postcard perfect as advertised. And what did I have to show for myself? I played my trump card and served up slices of my first attempt at Banoffee Pie. As we dug in our forks, I knew immediately that something had gone terribly awry. The toffee, which was supposed to be soft and gooey, had hardened to the consistency of concrete.

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