I’m meeting comedian Helen Wildy at Piper’s Pub in the South Side for dinner. I decided to invite Wildy there because I wanted an expert opinion.
For 20 years, Piper’s Pub has been the place for people who insist that soccer is called football, want a full English breakfast, or a pint alongside their Guinness stew for dinner. As someone who’s never been to the U.K., I don’t really have the authority to say whether Piper’s offers up an authentic interpretation of classic dishes from across the pond. But, Wildy does.
At the age of seven, she moved to the U.S. from Belfast, Northern Ireland with her parents and three older brothers, and still returns to Ireland almost every year.
Wildy is chatty and smiley—her mood is seemingly unaffected by the looming polar vortex that’s got everybody else in a mood.
She orders General Braddock’s IPA from Brew Gentleman, and I get an Old Fashioned.
“IPAs and sours are my go-to,” she says. “We love alcohol in my family.”
“Isn’t that kind of an Irish stereotype?” I ask.
“Yeah, well, that one’s got some legs,” she replies.
Wildy has been to Piper’s once before, several years ago for a family party, but that was before she became a vegetarian.
Piper’s has all of the meaty meals you’d expect–bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie, a bacon butty, scotch eggs—but they also have a surprisingly wide variety of vegetarian and vegan meals. They fry up their house-made seitan (a wheat-based meat replacement) and toss it in wing sauces, or use it in a banh mi. They have vindaloo curry and vegan stew.
WIldy is immediately excited by something she spots on the menu.
“Curry chips are like my favorite thing. When I go back to Ireland, my brothers and I load up on curry chips,” she said. “It’s not the healthiest country.”
If you saw Wildy performing stand up and she didn’t mention it, you probably wouldn’t know she was Irish. She doesn’t have an accent anymore, but some of the vocab has stuck around. She’s way more comfortable calling the fries “chips” than I am. She mentions her brother attending “university,” and talks about moving to “the States.”
“Everyone is like ‘why don’t you have an accent?’ and I’m like, ‘you know who doesn’t like Irish accents? American children,’” she says. “So I would go to school and speak like this and speak normally at home.”
Even though our countries speak essentially the same language, Wildy says there was some adjusting to do when she and her family arrived in the North Hills. And their differences definitely didn’t go unnoticed by their classmates.
“I remember I was having french fries in the cafeteria on my first day with a knife and fork…and this guy turned around and he was like ‘hey, new girl, you eat fries with a knife and fork?’” Wildy recalled. “And I didn’t know what fries were, so I was like ‘no!’ as I was still doing it.”
When the curry chips arrive, Wildy and I debate whether to pour the curry on top, or to dunk the fries in the curry sauce. I, being a true American, choose to dunk.
“That takes me home,” Wildy says after her first chip.
We chose a medium heat level for our curry, and it’s just right. And, luckily, we both agree that chips need vinegar.
Wildy tells me she started doing stand up two and a half years ago. Though, technically, her first open mic was in 2012.
“But I did it once and I got so scared, I would go back every six months,” she said. “It’s such a scary thing to do. Eventually the fear of not doing it was scarier than the fear of doing it. And here we were.”
Where Wildy is in her comedy career is a pretty exciting place. In October, she was chosen to open for Cameron Esposito—a stand-up, actor and podcaster well-known in the LGBTQ community and beyond—on the Pittsburgh stop of her national “Person of Consequence” tour.
“My parents are so sweet. They don’t know that much about comedy. They were having dinner across the street [before the show], and they were texting me like ‘Helen, people are lining up outside the door!’”
“I was like, ‘A. it’s not for me, and B. she’s really famous.’”
The first night opening for Esposito at the Rex Theater was the biggest room Wildy had ever played. It must have gone well, because Esposito asked her back for the next night in Harrisburg, and then for another show since then.
“She is probably the nicest person I’ve ever met,” Wildy said. “I was just in Buffalo on Tuesday and did a guest set for her there. She’s really been very kind to me.”
Our entrees arrive, so I surrender most of the curry chips to Wildy because she’s gone for a much lighter second course of a house salad with balsamic. I get a spin on fish and chips that subs battered salmon for the usual cod. It comes with mushy peas, dijon caper tartar sauce and of course, more chips. It’s all good. I really like the mushy peas. We need to try mashing things other than potatoes in this country.
In talking to Wildy, I can tell that she likes to see the humor in things. She says her comedy is all about her life and experiences.
“I talk a lot about being an immigrant, about being a lesbian, about being an aunt…about my family.”
She can put a comedic spin on any of it. She even makes me laugh about a ten-car pile-up she was in just last week.
“We got hit by a semi into another semi—everyone’s fine, but is was crazy and we got picked up by the tow truck driver, and they were so disappointed in the level of destruction at the site,” she said.
“This guy answers the phone and he’s like ‘yeah, man they said it was going to be a 30 car pile up, and there were only 10 cars…there’s no carnage. Bummer.”