Is this the best Irish soda bread in Chicago? Century-old recipe beats 100 contestants in Reilly’s Daughter contest – Chicago Tribune


The old adage “every picture has a story” got a new twist last weekend.

Erin Nelligan, one of more than 100 entrants to the 32nd Annual Irish Soda Bread Contest at Reilly’s Daughter in Oak Lawn, had this to say about the seemingly endless tables of soda bread awaiting the judges:

“Every piece of bread has a story,” the Beverly neighborhood resident said.

In effect.

“Some of the recipes used are 100 years old,” said Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who served as a judge at the event for a quarter of a century.

Nelligan’s recipe appears to be older than this, although an exact date of origin is impossible to trace.

You see, Nelligan got the recipe from her mother, Marge Ryan.

Marge got the recipe from her mother Helen Ryan, who hails from County Mayo in Ireland.

Helen got the recipe from a neighbor named Mrs. Mack and Nelligan is unsure of Mrs. Mack’s first name.

This is where the trail ends. Whether Mrs. Mack invented the recipe on her own or if it was passed down to her is a mystery that will likely remain unsolved.

“My grandmother would have been 100 this year,” Nelligan said. “It’s possible the recipe is 150 years old.”

It’s a very good one, too.

With one tweak from Marge Ryan and another from Nelligan, this recipe earned her a second-place finish in 2019 and a third-place finish in 2020. Nelligan said the tweaks are a secret she won’t tell anyone.

After the competition was canceled in 2021, she hoped to win the top prize – a trip for two to Ireland – in 2022.

But that award went to another Beverly neighborhood resident, Mary Kay Gavin-Marmo, founder of the Professional Irish Women’s Organization and former fashion and beauty editor of the Irish American News. Reilly’s Daughter boss Boz O’Brien said the difference between first and second place was one point and it was the closest competition for the championship he could remember. Sue Sullivan took third place.

O’Brien said he was happy to be able to bring the event back after the pandemic hiatus.

That year, the owner missed the event, which brought out so many memories.

“When we started, there were only nine ladies from the neighborhood,” he said. “Now it has grown to over 150 entries with celebrity judges.”

He recalls a time when one of the judges – political cartoonist Jack Higgins – opened an entrance and found a bribe.

“He found two five-dollar bills in the bread,” O’Brien said. “This contestant really wanted to win.”

Although contest day is festive and fun, contestants take it seriously, Dart said.

“Some of these events get really competitive,” Dart said. “They spend weeks working on it. When the winners are announced, there’s a lot of shouting and it’s exciting.

Judging after all these years gives the sheriff an appreciation for the popular bread.

“I’ve never been the biggest fan of soda bread,” he said. “But I’ve had some of the best here. There’s a certain guy I like and if I see one in someone else’s slice I want to trade with them, but you can’t do that.

Other judges this year included Evergreen Park Mayor Kelly Burke, State Representative Frank Hurley, State Senator Bill Cunningham and 19th Ward Ald. Matt O’Shea.

O’Brien said the judges did not sample all entries. With 101 this year, and over 150 in past contests, that would be an impossible task.

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Each judge tastes five or six loaves, and each judge’s winning entries go into a final round.

Nelligan came so close on her first three tries and said she will continue to try for the top prize.

“My girlfriends encouraged me to come in a few years ago,” she said. “They are always with me. I always make two loaves in the morning, so they have one to snack on all day.

“I have a terrible sweet tooth, so it has a bit of a sweetness to it. It’s extremely humid. I just think it’s the best.

Mrs. Mack’s recipe will be passed on again to Nelligan’s daughter, Ciara, who is in college.

“She’s in training and was with me when I made the bread,” Erin said. “My friends say he will remain in good hands with Ciarna.”

Jeff Vorva is a freelance journalist for the Daily Southtown.


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