“There’s a sunrise and a sunset every day, and you can choose to be there for it—you can put yourself in the way of beauty.”
Cheryl Strayed, Wild
It was a mystery that called us to Ireland. A family story passed down three generations, spoken with a mixture of pride and hesitation, because this was a story of betrayal in the name of hope, of sin in the name of survival. One hundred seventeen years later, no one had the answer to the greatest question of all: why. So we went in search of what no one had. We went in search of understanding.
The Emerald Isle is the ancestral home of my husband B’s great-grandparents, and it was their story that inspired us to take the eight-hour flight and three-hour train ride to the blustering west coast of the island last April. We didn’t have a plan, other than to get ourselves there. We are fairly seasoned travelers who relish the opportunity to put ourselves in situations that stretch us, but we also weren’t about to thrust ourselves upon the doorstep of strangers and pronounce ourselves family. What we wanted to know was simple and didn’t need very many words. We wanted to understand what drove his great-grandparents to leave their home in search of another. We wanted to see where B came from and what, in some small way, has made him who he is today. Not only did we not want to force a meeting, we weren’t even sure if anyone related to his family still lived there. There was only one thing to do that would give us an inkling of an answer.
We put ourselves in the way of it and waited to see what would happen.
It was not a remarkable day. In fact, it was unseasonably cold for April, so we bundled ourselves up and headed out the door. The plan was to visit Westport House and then find a way to the small village outside Westport where B’s family lived. Because it was the off-season, we were one of two families exploring the grounds that day. The house was beautiful, with a dramatic marble staircase and imported Chinese wallpaper, a library/office that made me swoon. But it was also an odd feeling, standing inside this incredible home overlooking the sprawling grounds, knowing that the surrounding villages were deeply impacted during the Famine.
After the visit, we wandered the forested path out to the road along Carrowbeg River to The Quay. It was cold, midday, and the off-season, so this little corner of town was quiet and still. We walked along the street and ended up stepping into a hotel on the corner of the road. The hotel clerk kindly offered to call us a taxi.
This was how we ended up, entirely serendipitously, winding over cliffside roads to the quaint village of Louisburgh, County Mayo, Ireland.
We couldn’t have scripted it. The taxi pulled into town at the exact moment she stood on the corner. Our driver recognizes the woman. The roll of a window, some pleasantries exchanged, and the question is asked.
“These two are looking for their family. Do you happen to know them?”
It appeared some small dose of that famous Irish luck might still be in B’s veins. Because the woman on the curb was his second aunt.
This is when the magic happens.
About five minutes down the road, I realize we’ve gotten into a stranger’s car in a foreign country, and we’re speeding down the road inland, hugged by rippling hills and a rising holy mountain in the distance, but somehow, none of it feels anything but normal. I feel as if we’ve known this woman our entire lives, as if we’re meeting her anew after many years of being apart. We were meant to be here, and we were meant to go to her home this day.
Home is exactly where we end up, sitting in the room that always ends up welcoming guests and neighbors and long-distance family from abroad: the kitchen. She makes us sandwiches and tea—glorious Irish tea, which we fell in love with during our time there. We pulled out the sheets of paper we had with our genealogy notes printed on them, and together with her husband and sons, traced our families back three generations to find one another.
Over a turkey sandwich, we began to become friends.
It’s the cheese that’s stuck with me, almost eight months later. The creamy simplicity of it. It wasn’t an amazing sandwich, and yet it was. The magic wasn’t in the ingredients but in the setting, in the serendipitous way it landed between my hands, nourishing more than just my stomach. I can’t duplicate it, because duplicating the circumstances that feed memories of meals is elusive at best and impossible at worst. But that being said, you know I had to try.
So here’s my longwinded way of saying, I have a turkey sandwich to share with you. I’ve added some things to this version. Blackberries as an echo to B’s Southern roots and his berry-growing, green-thumbed dad; baby arugula, for a bit of crunch and peppery bite; wild yeast sourdough for that tanginess I love. If you don’t have roasted turkey on hand, swap in leftover chicken and you’ll do just fine. Pop the extra blackberries in your mouth as you make it. Let them stain your fingers pink and bright, another memory, already in the making.
Until next time,
Simple Blackberry-Goat Cheese Turkey Sandwiches
1/4 to 1/2 cup fresh blackberries
1 lemon, zested
1 (4-oz) log goat cheese, softened
1 cup baby arugula
2 tsp olive oil
1 tsp red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper
4 slices wild-yeast sourdough bread (or your favorite bakery sourdough)
8 oz sliced roasted turkey or chicken
Place a wire-mesh strainer over a bowl. Place blackberries in strainer, and press juice from berries into bowl to equal about 1 Tbsp juice. Gently fold together berry juice, lemon zest, and cheese.
Toss together arugula, oil, vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste.
Toast bread. Spread one side of each slice with desired amount of cheese. Top 2 slices with turkey and arugula. Top with remaining bread slices, cheese sides down. Cut in half, if desired.