Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Humble bread pan preserves Irish heritage

From the hold of the SS Carmania to an oven in Oakley

By Cliff Radel
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Mary Durkin Nunner (front) inherited the family's special soda-bread pan from her late mother, Margaret Ruane Durkin, and passed it along to her own daughter, Maureen Nunner Tracey.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/MICHAEL E. KEATING

If the magic pan could talk, it would tell the story of how a recipe for Irish soda bread and a piece of battered and blackened metal can hold a family together.

This pan would speak in a brogue that honors Cincinnati's rich Irish heritage.

Ten percent of the people in the Queen City claim roots in the Emerald Isle. The other 90 percent hold dear what the Irish treasure - strong family ties that keep us whole in an increasingly stress-fractured world.

On this St. Patrick's Day, the tale celebrates Margaret Ruane Durkin. And the spirit of family traditions.

"She was equally proud of where she came from and the home she made in America," said Durkin's granddaughter, Maureen Nunner Tracey.

Durkin left her native Ireland in 1911. She wanted to escape her homeland's poverty and the upheaval caused by yet another bid for independence from England.

She eventually settled in Oakley, where she married Patrick Durkin and became, in this order, a cook, a wife, a mom and a grandma.

Durkin was 18 when she left Ireland. With her came two reminders of home: her family's delicious recipe for soda bread, an often bland staple of Irish cuisine, and the pan in which to bake it.

This story traces how her prized possession - with the oddly clipped corners and the strangely notched rim - has been handed down through the generations without fanfare but with deep emotion.

The pan has gone from mother (Durkin) to daughter (Mary Durkin Nunner) to granddaughter (Tracey).

From Ireland's County Galway to Ohio's Hamilton County.

From the hold of the SS Carmania, the ship that delivered Ruane from Ireland, to the cabinet next to the oven in Tracey's Oakley kitchen.

"There's no big ceremony when the pan is passed on," Tracey said. Nor are there any hard and fast rules of succession to determine who inherits the pan that has launched at least 10,000 loaves of soda bread.

"We know when it's time," said Nunner as she sat in Tracey's kitchen. She turned the pan over to her daughter 15 years ago.

"Grandma was too humble to think this old pan was special," Tracey said. "She'd want to know why anyone would want it.

"If one of her granddaughters had asked for it, she'd probably just wave her hand and say, 'Go ahead. Take it.'"

Another generation - Tracey's daughters - stands poised to continue the succession. One of the girls will get the pan and the closely guarded family recipe.

"I'm not saying which of my daughters will get it," Tracey said.

She wants to keep them in line.

Durkin finally wrote down the directions and a list of ingredients shortly before she died in 1979 at the age of 86.

Her recipe ends with these instructions: "Be good. Love, Mom."

"We don't give out the recipe," Nunner said. "If we did, it wouldn't be our special recipe anymore."

The secret recipe is not all that exact.

"Mother would always write down things like 'four or five of this,' 'about so much of that,'" Nunner said.

She recalled her mother's advice for determining when the buttermilk-based batter was ready for baking. "You know," she said, "when you know."

This much is known: The pan measures 81/2 by 61/4 by 23/4 inches. The soda bread takes one egg, a half-cup of sugar and "a scant cup of raisins," Tracey said.

"If you packed down the raisins too tightly in the measuring cup, Grandma would give you a look. In her soft Irish accent, she'd say: 'That's enough.'"

The signature feature of Durkin's soda bread is a topping of cinnamon and brown sugar.

"That topping," Tracey said, "is what makes her soda bread so special."

And so mouth-watering. The topping complements the bread's moist texture and a medley of tastes to warm heart and soul.

While family members are unwilling to give directions on how to bake the bread, they freely discuss what the recipe and the pan mean to them.

"This old pan has been to many a party," Nunner said as her hands cradled the pan.

"Mother had a saying: 'You can't go anywhere with one arm hanging as long as the other.' That meant: You don't go to someone's home empty-handed. So, when she went visiting, she took her soda bread."

And everyone raved.

Nunner gazed at the pan. She placed it on the kitchen counter and gently ran a finger over the pan's surface. Nearly a century of baking butter, eggs, milk and sugar with the juices of chewy raisins has given the surface the color of darkest ebony.

"This pan has entertained everyone from paupers to priests," Tracey said.

Nunner and Tracey swear the pan has been used only to bake soda bread. And nothing but soda bread. So help them St. Patrick.

The pan never saw action as a small child's drum. Or felt the rub of an SOS pad.

"We just wipe out the pan," Tracey said. "We never scrub it.

"And, you would never use that pan to beat in the new year."

The pan's magic revolves around its ability to bring people together. Forever.

"This pan says to everybody that there is something special in your family," Tracey said, "something special in your heritage that you are incredibly proud of."

Unlike other family heirlooms, this one can be sliced and consumed - repeatedly.

"The soda bread baked in this pan is something that is an intricate part of us," Tracey said.

"It's something that continues my grandma's tradition of welcoming people into her home. She'd be making the cake as you came in. She'd put on some tea and start talking with you. Pretty soon, the soda bread would be ready. That's a tradition you want to share with everyone.

"It goes beyond being a bread."

"It becomes a conversation. Everybody's soda bread says something about them."

Margaret Durkin's soda bread says her recipe, her pan and her traditions are in good hands.


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