Cooking up an Irish trip

Marguerite Cogliano, Shauna Capen, and Ryan Gorman
Martha's Vineyard Regional High School students Marguerite Cogliano, Shauna Capen, and Ryan Gorman hosted the benefit dinner at the PA Club to help fund their class trip to Ireland. Photos by Susan Safford

By Pat Waring - January 18, 2007

The big kitchen at the PA Club in Oak Bluffs was humming with mouth-watering activity on Saturday. Corned beef was roasting, and potatoes, carrots, and cabbage were simmering on the stove. Platters were heaped with homemade cornbread chunks; the dessert table boasted brownies, spice cake, decorated sugar cookies, and even green Jell-O with whipped cream. It looked like an army of professional chefs had been hard at work all day creating the lavish spread. But in fact it took only three determined Martha's Vineyard Regional High School seniors and a handful of supportive adults to turn out the feast.

Marguerite Cogliano and Shauna Capen, and Ryan Gorman from Edgartown, all members of teacher Elaine Weintraub's Irish History and Culture class, in preparation for this April's trip to Ireland, planned three community dinners to help raise money to defray their expenses. Corned beef and cabbage, renowned as a traditional Irish meal, was chosen as the kickoff dinner. A look at the hungry diners of all ages, enjoying their plates piled high with corned beef and vegetables, made it clear that the menu choice was a perfect one.

Evanna Ketchen
Evanna Ketchen worked to clean her plate so she could have dessert.

According to Ms. Weintraub, entire classes seldom fund-raise as a group, but individual families and students hold community benefits to bring in extra money to help with travel costs. Some may simply collect change from customers at Cronig's, while others may hold a bake sale; one group plans to show an Irish film, and some sold centerpieces at the high school's Holiday Bazaar.

But Marguerite, Shauna, and Ryan jumped into fund-raising with both feet. Two of their mothers, Rose Cogliano and Sharon Capen, quickly signed on to work with the ambitious trio in planning and organizing three benefit dinners. Ms. Cogliano, who oversees meals at the Oak Bluffs Council on Aging where she is assistant director, was glad to contribute her food service experience to the cause.

Along with planning the menu, the group made a grocery list, arranged for the use of the PA Club facility, and made posters to advertise the event. They were delighted that Cronig's Market, Reliable Market, and Stop & Shop all donated food, which meant their cash outlay was less. "They're wonderful people!" said Rose Cogliano.

When the weekend neared, the group began working in earnest. "It was a group effort," said Marguerite as she listed the many chores. They prepared desserts and baked cornbread. They spent several hours on Friday night peeling 100 pounds of potatoes and 45 pounds of carrots and preparing 100 pounds of corned beef, and they were in the kitchen early on Saturday morning.

"It gives the kids an opportunity to work together as a cohesive group," said Ms. Cogliano during a lull in the kitchen. "It's their drive and their initiative. They've done it. They're all dynamic kids and I give them a lot of credit! People admire and respect someone who tries to do something for themselves, and that's what these kids have done."

Steven Quinn
Steven Quinn digs into his second plate of corned beef and all the fixings.

When they were not busy cooking and serving, the parents and students circulated through the dining room, chatting with patrons and thanking them for attending. Erin Kokoszka of Oak Bluffs, a friend of the Coglianos, made the rounds of both the dining room and adjacent function room, selling tickets for a 50/50 raffle, cheerfully announcing, "It only takes one to win." By evening's end the pot totaled $150 and Karen Achille of Oak Bluffs was the happy winner.

Not content with just one success, the fund-raising team has two more dinners planned, both with traditional Irish food on the menu. Shepherd's pie is the highlight on Thursday, Feb. 15, and Ms. Cogliano promised the cooks will not scrimp on the meat: "You won't need a magnifying glass to see it." Sausage and mashed potatoes, traditionally known as Bangers and Mash, will be served on Friday, March 16. Both dinners will be held at the PA Club, from 5 to 8 pm.

When the last dinner is over, the last tables are cleared, happy customers sent home with full stomachs, and all the pots and pans are washed and put away, these three energetic students will have earned a significant chunk of their travel expenses. And even more importantly, they will have learned that when they want to do something that may seem daunting, with determination, teamwork, community support, and plenty of elbow grease, they can make it happen.

Discovering Ireland

Elaine Weintraub began the Irish History and Culture Class in 1998. Born and raised in Ireland (she moved to the United States with her husband, Joel, 20 years ago), Ms. Weintraub believed her native country offered a wealth of information and inspiration to share with her students. The class has become a very popular one; this year some 100 students have signed up.

Carnations were tinted green in honor of the Irish theme.

Ms. Weintraub packs material into the one-semester course, beginning with Celtic myths and legends and moving through a survey of Irish history with emphasis on the great famine of 1846 to 1852 and the Irish War of Independence. To bring the subject matter to life, the students celebrate a number of traditional Celtic festivals. Later in the semester they do a teaching project in Island elementary schools, using their newfound knowledge to introduce younger students to Ireland.

Each year 25 students may sign up for the spring trip to Ireland on a first-come, first-served basis. As she does with the course itself, Ms. Weintraub makes an effort to include a wide variety of experiences during the eight-day tour. From Shannon Airport the group will head to the Cliffs of Moher, have two nights in Kilarney, then off to the Blasket Islands before enjoying a night on the town in Dublin. They will visit New Grange, an ancient site designed to fill with light at the winter solstice, the National Famine Museum, and a deserted village on Achill Island, abandoned during the famine. The whirlwind tour ends in Galway. Ms. Weintraub said that students are enthusiastic about her class, especially the many that have some Irish ancestry. And, she said, they never fail to be excited by all they see on their travels.

"Ireland's a spiritual place," she commented. "It goes beyond just taking a trip. It's about looking at the world in a new way.