Growing up in Lexington, Barbara Harper-Bach, 76, had no idea that she was Irish.
But as she began exploring her culinary roots, she came to realize that the dishes she had watched her grandmother, Irene Brown Harper, make were very similar to traditional Irish cooking.
"Her jam cake was so good, so different," she said. Instead of using what Kentuckians consider a traditional caramel icing, she made a white icing, similar to divinity. "Nobody had a cake like that."
Then Harper-Bach recognized it as Irish fruitcake.
Her grandmother also would make mashed potatoes with boiled cabbage, then fill a little well in the middle of the mixture with melted butter.
And she would say this little verse, Harper-Bach remembered: "Did you ever take your fork and dip it in the lake? Some did and some did not, when their grannies made colcannon in a little skillet pot."
The dish, colcannon, is one of the most quintessential Irish dishes, Harper-Bach said. "But the Irishness was never talked about and explicit."
Thank goodness things have changed. Now Irish ancestry is embraced and celebrated and not just on St. Patrick's Day, March 17.
A big part of that shift came from renowned Irish cook Myrtle Allen, who has been called the Alice Waters of Irish cooking.
In the 1960s Allen established a restaurant in her own dining room, called it The Yeats Room and used fresh vegetables and fruits from her husband's farm as well as local artisanal ingredients. That grew into Ballymaloe House in Shanagarry, County Cork, a hotel that is an influential outpost of modern Irish food, along with the Ballymaloe Cookery School.
Allen and her daughter-in-law, Darina Allen, also wrote cookbooks, and back in Kentucky Harper-Bach read them with keen interest. It was like discovering ancient lost texts of her grandmother's Irish roots.
"These women put cooking back on the map for Ireland. Myrtle's about my age, and when I realized in the '70s that I was Irish and I wanted to learn more about it, I started buying Myrtle Allen's books," she said. "Everything I made was just like my grandmother used to make."
Harper-Bach, who has won blue ribbons for her pies, thinks that her baking prowess comes from that Irish heritage.
"They are wonderful bakers," she said.
Now Harper-Bach's food journey is coming full circle. In May she will journey to Ballymaloe House in Ireland and visit the renowned Ballymaloe Cookery School.
She will take a set of her "Irish American cookbooks" for the Allens and will give a copy of From My Mother's Kitchen, her first book, to the school, along with recipe cards for the students.
"I'll get to speak to the students about Irish American cooking, and my cookbooks, and how to self publish cookbooks," Harper-Bach said. "I just want to let them know how they influenced me. ... My goal is to share my knowledge before it's gone forever.
"It's hard to find people who are as passionate about cooking as I am."