The human condition is a strange one indeed. We are always on the look out for the next ‘new’ thing; eagerly anticipating its arrival. It is particularly obvious when it comes to technology. Once the object of our desire and fascination is procured we adore it for all of five minutes and then quickly get used to it and suddenly realise that despite the advantages we now have yet another gadget to mind, manage and administer. I have noticed that we can sometimes apply the same philosophy to food. Having lived through and survived the tiger years we are now a nation of well travelled and relatively sophisticated people. In a lifetime most of us can recall a fine dining experience or two, sampling the exotic at least once and, of course, television regularly beams its take on epicurean sophistication into our living rooms. With our new found interest in culinary arts we have to be careful that we don’t fall into the trap of considering it boring or old fashioned unless it is three miniscule pieces of monkfish arranged like a piece of art on a plate with a red coloured sauce dotted around the sides and the green of some rocket setting the whole thing off.
In every other sphere of human enjoyment reinvention is the name of the game. Fashion is a good example with headlines often screaming the return of some decade or another. To be honest it is all a little lost on me as I am in the fortunate position of having my own personal stylist; my wife. Unless it was blatantly obvious I probably couldn’t tell you which era somebody was wearing but I understand the theory that everything eventually comes back into fashion, often with just a small twist. For most men the analogy is probably better drawn in the world of music. Classic songs are often recorded by modern artists who give them a new lease of life. Often they will just re-record; a new voice offering the only freshness required. Usually there is a new arrangement, the addition of a little sax perhaps or replacing an acoustic guitar with an electric one to rock it all up. Fast energetic songs have been slowed down to modern ballads and vice versa. In many cases the original song with the original artist has been taken and re-mastered or re-mixed with some new instruments or an additional vocal and, like magic, a new hit is born. It was the same lyric and the same song with just enough tweaking for it to feel new all over again.
If we apply this to food we get what I like to call the cornflakes theory. If you haven’t had cornflakes in a long time and consider them boring, just try a bowl and you will be surprised how good they are. Stick with cornflakes everyday for a month and pretty soon they will be relegated back to the place where you considered that eating the box was more appetising. This just proves our need as humans for variety but we mustn’t mix up variety with the pressure of constantly needing ‘new’ and ‘original’.
Recently with friends coming over for an informal kitchen supper I suggested a simple Shepherds Pie. While nobody said anything as such I felt little enthusiasm about it. Now to clarify I will admit to being a philistine and making my version of Shepherds Pie with beef mince rather than lamb. As someone once pointed out to me “You don’t see shepherds minding cattle!” Hence Shepherds Pie is traditionally made with lamb with a mashed potato topping and Cottage Pie is the one using the beef. So if I’m being correct, I was attempting a Cottage Pie.
So here I was with a simple dish that has sustained generations. What happened next was interesting. Having been sidetracked completely by the newspaper, I prepared the meat filling and suddenly realised I was up against time when it came to peeling and mashing potatoes and then baking the whole thing in the oven. As necessity is the mother of invention I had to actually think. I hoped that the god of the fridge would speak in a loud inspirational voice if I peered inside. I wasn’t disappointed. Staring up at me were some sad and slightly stale pitta breads. There was no doubt that their next destination was the bin. With a surge of hope I grabbed them and threw them into the blender making a decent batch of pitta breadcrumbs. I grated some lovely local cheese and then cut up some fresh chives and mixed the whole lot together to form a crumb topping and spread it over the meat mixture. I also randomly dotted some small knobs of butter about the top as well. While that baked in the oven I prepared my signature creamy mash.
For fun I brought the entire dish to the table where the pitta and cheese crust had browned beautifully and looked really inviting. Breaking into the dish with a spoon I felt like a ravenous animal breaking the ice on a frozen pond and finding the lovely ice cool water beneath. In my case it was the steaming, aroma of the meat filling that rose up and as it filled the air it drew pleasing sighs from my little hungry audience. All I can say is that plates were literally licked clean and one or two went back for seconds. We had all forgotten the pleasures and comfort of a simple Shepherds (Cottage) Pie. My necessary twist of pitta bread topping certainly gave it a modern edge but the reality is that in terms of food, it was no different to how my own mother made it years ago; fresh meat, local vegetables, good quality stock and a few locally sourced herbs and everyone felt like they had been introduced to something ‘new’ again.
You see food, just like music and songs, has a wonderful power and ability to invoke memories; both good and bad. I was blessed to have a mother and other family members who could cook well. Looking back their food would be considered simple by today’s sophisticated standards, but like good songs they are dishes that have stood the test of time. Indeed most modern dishes are just fancy twists on something that has gone before it. I think it was the great King Solomon who said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Then again I think he would probably have been pretty impressed with the iPhone. I welcome your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
We hope you enjoyed reading this post by Pat Whelan of James Whelan Butchers. Pat is a 5th generation butcher, cook book author and the director of James Whelan Butchers with shops in Clonmel, the Avoca Handweavers Rathcoole and Kilmacanogue, Dunnes Stores Cornelscourt, Rathmines and Swords in Dublin. Sign up to our newsletter for more updates from James Whelan Butchers