My Irish ancestors arrived in the United States in the 1920s. They promptly met up with the Sicilian side of my family and a carb-filled history was born. At Ellis Island, the Irish surname went from McYoung to Young, a stroke of the pen removing the Irish “Mc” forever, while the Sicilian name stayed the same but was mispronounced for the next century. In tribute to their immigration path, I have officially sworn I will never go paleo or carb-free or just plain potato-free. Celebrating my Irish and Italian heritage means I eat pasta and potatoes in all forms from mashed to fried to covered in slowly-simmered sauces.
While I am always on the lookout for potatoes, around mid-February I start frequenting the fast food joint that kept their “Mc” and also loves potatoes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. From hashbrowns to French fries, McDonald’s serves up my starchy favorites in ways that would probably make my Irish ancestors turn over in their graves. And for one mint-filled month, I call on the patron saint of St. Patrick to guide to me McDonald’s and the Shamrock Shake.
The Shamrock Shake was the penultimate treat of my childhood. Back then, the shakes were just green (vibrant St. Patrick’s Day green). Much like fountain drinks at McDonald’s taste differently somehow, the flavor of an ’80s Shamrock Shake was like a leprechaun; it was really just vanilla tinted Irish-Catholic green. Although, it would probably have been too confusing to have a Shamrock Shake that was tinted Protestant orange.
There was a decade or two when Shamrock shakes weren’t on the McDonald’s menu at all. I lamented the loss of my childhood favorite (and cursed the Hamburglar for stealing them). I also called out to St. Patrick to bring back the Shamrock Shake. I may have even buried a St. Joseph statue in my small town McDonald’s parking lot.
I had brief moments of hope: the McRib did come back. But I slowly began to accept the Shamrock Shake might be gone forever when I read the last restaurant serving the McPizza had shut down their pizza ovens. I cried when they stopped serving the snack-sized servings of Hamburglar cookies. The death of the salad with separate dressing cup and the McDLT just further chopped off the “Mc” for me. The restaurant signs might as well have just been flashing “Donald’s,” cut short by a misguided marketing executive. Ironically, my ancestors were the immigrant-to-hate du jour when they arrived. Losing the McPizza and the Shamrock Shake was akin to a fast food slam against both of my ancestral families.
I tried making a Shamrock Shake at home. It was an abject failure. Every St. Patrick’s Day, I yelled into the drive-thru speaker asking if they had Shamrock Shakes and somehow ended up with a hamburger patty and nothing else. The drive-thru workers had never seen or heard of a Shamrock Shake. They tried offering me strawberry or vanilla or chocolate shakes before I left the drive-thru empty-handed. And then one day, I saw the sign: the Shamrock Shake was back. Like the green-tinged Statue of Liberty beckoning the hungry, the nostalgic and the Irish and not-so-Irish. The image of a tall plastic cup of green milkshake standing as a drive-thru sentinel thrilled me like a King Cake or a piece of Friday Lenten fish. It was if I had made it from Palm Sunday to Easter without drinking, cussing, or eating chocolate. I was finally being rewarded by St. Patrick for my shake devotion.
However much I was thrilled to return to the shake of my youth and faintly my ancestors, there is something culturally-sanitized about the Shamrock Shake. The pale (now “vanilla mint”) green shake is tinted in a way that is more Miami Vice linen suit than vibrant Irish green. It is like the Queer Eye guys of 2019 designed a milkshake for a new generation of shake aficionados, pastel and just-mint enough, but not quite a McDonald’s food from the heydays when creepy characters haunted the PlayPlace.
It wasn’t enough the Shamrock Shake came back from wherever the McRib (which sounds oddly like some Irish skeleton still covered in peat) was hidden. This year, McDonald’s has teched-up the process of finding Shamrock Shakes with a locator app. While that only works if their perpetually-broken ice cream machines are operating, there is something very pot-of-gold leprechaun-ish about dropping in my zip code to find a Shamrock Shake at the end of the app rainbow.
The first Shamrock sip is still as magical as it was in my childhood. However, I only take a few sips before passing it to my kids though who still have the magical, lucky metabolism to drink 800 calories in one sitting. I know the Shamrock Shake could disappear with a poof at any moment. For one glorious month, I know the golden arches will guide me to a smooth, mint Shamrock Shake. As I gleefully tell my friends and family about the new Shamrock Shake locator app, I whisper a blessing with the “Mc” intact: May the Shamrock Shake rise up to meet you and may the ice cream machine always be clean. And then I go bury a St. Joseph statue in the McDonald’s parking lot just in case.