My grandfather Dominic was said to have had the luck of the Irish, which I find odd because he was almost entirely Calabrese. I also consider it a bit cruel because the Irish have not been, historically speaking, a very fortunate group of people. At least Smitty, his best friend in South Philadelphia, was of actual Irish stock. Perhaps his friend’s purported Hibernian good fortune rubbed off on Grandpop when the two of them got so eye-wateringly drunk the day Prohibition was repealed that they tried to swim up the sidewalk. Many skin cells undoubtedly sloughed off and mingled on the cement that early December afternoon in 1933. It’s the only story I know about his friend, so that is all I have to go on.
But it was another December afternoon not many years after he took both his whiskey and his breast-stroke without the benefit of water that good fortune came into full play. This little story has everything to do with luck and, as appropriate to both the season and the saying, this luck had everything to do with the Irish.
Long before SuperLotto and Scratchers, there was the Irish Free State Hospitals’ Sweepstakes, which was set up specifically to raise money for, unsurprisingly, the building of hospitals in Ireland*. This Gaelic fundraising scheme was extremely popular in America during the 1930s– home of more Irish people than Ireland at the time. It wasn’t, however, strictly legal, but the U.S. government seemed rather soft on this specific sort of crime.
Sweepstakes tickets were rather expensive for working class people during the Depression and, naturally, working class people were just the sort of folk who liked to buy them. My grandfather was an exception– he never had to pay for his tickets. He was offered the opportunity of selling a book of them– the payment for his time and effort was to keep two tickets for himself. He chose the first and the last one in recompense.
A short time later, several numbers were drawn at random from a giant drum by either a blind boy or a sexy nurse– both were used as ticket pickers– back in Ireland. One of the numbers was Grandpop’s.
A list of names was published in the papers, including Dominic’s. Every winner was then randomly assigned a horse, which would then race against each other in a steeplechase completion. There would be a several horses carrying tiny jockeys and the big dreams of a very fortunate few. Dominic seemed more fortunate than the others– he drew a horse named Hurdy Gurdy, who was the grandson of one of the most famous horses in the history of horse racing, Man o’ War. Prior to the race, my grandfather was offered $10,000 for his ticket. He declined.
Why settle for ten grand when you’re the odds-on favorite to win fifteen times as much? My father remembers the excitement of the time, though he wasn’t yet six. Newsreel cameras showed up at my family’s door.
When racing day finally arrived, I can only imagine the tension and excitement my grandfather must have felt. He was a thirty-two year-old man with a fourth grade education living in a small apartment above his mother-in-law’s butcher shop with his wife and small son. In a few minutes, he would possibly be a very rich man with a big house of his own. I imagine many of his fellow ticket holders were thinking the similar things about themselves.
Out of the gate, Hurdy Gurdy was in front and remained there for most of the race. And then, at the last hurdle, he choked. I couldn’t tell you what happened precisely because I wasn’t there. But then neither was Dominic– the race was run somewhere in Britain. There was just a moment of confusion and then disappointment as the family huddled around and stared at the Phillips radio. Since it was my family I’m describing, they most likely shouted at it, too.
There’d be no $150,000 grand prize for the Procopios that day. The ticket wasn’t even worth the $10,000 he was so recently offered for it. But he did receive $3,000 as a consolation prize. With that money, he was able to move his family out from over the butcher shop in South Philadelphia and into a three-story townhouse in another part of the city called Mayfair, which sounds as though it probably smelled much nicer than his old neighborhood. He could do now do all the consoling he wanted in the privacy of his very own home.
He may not have won the Irish Sweepstakes, but he was still pretty damned lucky if you ask me.
Here’s newsreel footage of some of the bigger Sweepstakes winners from New York that year. People whose horses didn’t stumble. My family isn’t featured but, by the look and sound of some of them, it wouldn’t come as a total shock if we were somehow related.
Irish Sweepstakes Stew
My grandfather may have been considered lucky, but not, alas, Hurdy Gurdy. He quit racing not long after his stumble at the Irish Sweepstakes. His owner declined to put him out to stud and he was no longer seen in the best stables. He may or may not have been sold to a very wealthy eleven year-old girl with narcolepsy and taken to Guernsey, where he lived a quiet life out of the spotlight until the Nazis invaded and occupied the island in 1940. He was last seen looking for sugar cubes near Candie Gardens in November 1943, shortly after all supplies of cattle, sheep, and poultry had been either consumed or exported.
You do the math.
Serves anywhere between 3 to 912 people**.
• About 2 lbs of cubed horse meat, if available. If not, you may consider substituting mule or possibly lamb.
• 1 cup of medium-diced fennel, because this stew is in part inspired by Southern Italian people who do not really understand potatoes.
• 1 cup of pearl onions, blanched and peeled.
• 1 cup of carrots, medium diced which, in happier times, Hurdy Gurdy considered a treat.
• 4 cloves of garlic., sliced
• 4 tablespoons of bacon fat
• 2 cups of horse stock, if you have the patience to make it. Lamb, beef, or even vegetable stock will also work.
• 1 cup white wine
• 1 cup water or vegetable stock.
• 1 tablespoon tomato paste, ideally from a tube.
• 1 tablespoon of flour, for thickening. Or, if you still have access, one hoof.
• 3 tablespoons of flour for the coating of meat, which also helps to thicken. Do not substitute hooves.
• An unhealthy amount of salt
• The same amount of pepper
• A bouquet garni consisting of oregano, rosemary, parsley, and thyme.
• 1 bay leaf.
• More parsley, but chopped this time, for garnish.
• Freshly grated Pecorino cheese, because Parmesan is for Northerners.
• Pappardelle pasta. See: Southern Italian potato issues.
- Heat the bacon fat in the bottom of a large dutch oven. Toss the horse meat with three tablespoons of flour, some salt, and a bit of pepper. Shake off excess and place your dusty cubes into the hot pig fat. Do not crowd the pan– work in batches until your meat is browned on all sides. Remove from your cooking vessel and set aside.
- Next add garlic, onions, carrots, and fennel into the fat, lowering the heat, and cooking until hot and softened. Remove the vegetables into the same bowl as the meat or into a clean one if you don’t mind doing extra dishes. Pour the white wine into the pot and scrape at all the delicious bits stuck to the bottom unit they break free. Add 1 tablespoon of flour and your tomato paste and whisk until all is smooth and slightly thickened. Return the meat and vegetables to the pot, pour over horse stock and 1 cup of water. The meat and veg should be just covered by liquid. Add the bouquet garni, baby leaf, a little salt, and some more pepper.
- Cover and let simmer for at least 90 minutes.
- To serve: if you are from a Southern Italian family, ladle the stew over pasta and garnish with Pecorino and parsley. If you’re from an Irish family, serve with potatoes. If you’re from a Anglo-Saxon Protestant family, you’d probably never consider making this dish in the first place.
- Sit down and enjoy with your family and thank the Lord for your good fortune as you say Grace. Just be certain to also thank the horse for your new house, your delicious dinner, and your new chest freezer, which will hold the leftover stew you’ll most likely be consuming over the next several months.
*Also not surprisingly, it was conceived by a professional bookie and most of the money never found its way into hospitals.
** This recipe calls for about two pounds of meat. If you intend to use the entire animal, please consider that the average horse weighs 760 lbs and has a meat yield of roughly 60%. You will therefore need to multiply the recipe by 228.