We share a great deal in common with our nearest neighbour the UK. We don’t think anything of watching British television or reading British magazines and embracing the texts and programmes as our own. We’ll watch cookery programmes, largely presented by British chefs and cooks and we forget we are watching something from another country as the ingredients, methods and tools used are all totally familiar. An indigenous French or Italian cookery programme would be watched with an entirely different mindset. Indeed even programmes made in America where the language is the same have obvious discrepancies when it comes to ingredients in particular. I am not aware of a general Irish supermarket that sells Marshmallow Cream or Graham Crackers, nor have I ever attempted to make a corn dog! Yet shows from Britain are watched avidly as if they are our own. Our own chefs even get in on the act and often pop up on UK shows and even host their own British made series.
Then a year like 2012 emerges when Britain is doing something unique to their heritage. Suddenly the food magazines and programmes unmask themselves as the British publications they are. I’m not talking about the Olympics, as we will have our own team, but I’m thinking of the Queen’s diamond jubilee. This year marks her 60th year as a monarch. To celebrate the fact that she has sat on the throne for six decades, Britain is currently in jubilee overdrive. Every food magazine and website is full of food for celebratory street parties and picnics. I’m suddenly aware of the huge differences between our nations. When was the last street party you attended? We just don’t tend to go in for it here. British food is being talked up and the other striking thing is their pride in the Union Jack and their enthusiasm to display it as a national emblem. Sadly in Ireland, apart from St Patrick’s Day, we don’t have the same passion for our flag. We don’t make cupcakes with the tricolour on the top or green, white and orange iced biscuits regularly. We don’t decorate our food with little flags or erect tricolour bunting to celebrate events. Our flag has been hijacked politically to a certain extent and that renders it less fashionable to us than the Union Jack is to the British. While I’m not envious of their monarchy, I am slightly envious at their freedom to express their patriotism. In Ireland being patriotic can often be mistaken for being political, when the two are not interdependent.
Anyway this whole British nostalgia trend got me wondering what we as a nation were doing in terms of food around the time of the Queen’s coronation. When they were embracing new dishes like Coronation Chicken were we creating new Irish dishes? So for the purposes of this article I took myself back to the 1950s.
The first thing we must note is that the food in the 1950s was undoubtedly more wholesome and closer to its natural state than it is nowadays. There wasn’t a buffalo flavoured crisp, Indian spiced nacho or any golden arches in sight. Food was quite simple; echoing life in general at that time. The trend was three meals a day, no snacking and little in the way of convenience food. Pasta and rice weren’t even on the radar, let alone be considered ‘foreign muck’. Luxury items such as chocolate were treats in the real sense of the word, meaning eaten occasionally as a moment to be savoured and enjoyed. I hear children today asking for food ‘treats’ daily, which effectively makes a nonsense of the word. One thing is certain that food in 1950s Ireland wasn’t the hobby or interest that it is today. Food was enjoyed, definitely, but it was as much about fuel and sustenance as it was about pleasure and interest. The proliferation of the amateur gourmand that abounds today would leave our 1950s cousins baffled.
Interestingly while food from that period is deemed more honest and real perhaps, it would also have to be said that if we were to adopt the average 1950s menu in today’s society we might find ourselves in bigger trouble with obesity than we already are. This has to do with lifestyle than the food itself. Our friends from the mid 20th century were much more active on a day to day basis and therefore burned up so many more calories than we do thanks to the modern advances. The restaurant scene was also on the cusp of birth in those days. Certainly outside of Dublin, stand alone restaurants for evening dining were uncommon if non existent and it was the 1950s that saw their relative small beginnings. Fish in Ireland has also enjoyed a more positive change. For an island nation we are not celebrated globally for our fish cuisine and that’s probably because fish was eaten as a penance with religious overtones. What we did have in Ireland in the 1950s was lots of meat, fresh eggs and real cream in abundance, unlike our British neigbours who were still filling in ration books. The 1950s saw the beginning of the food landscape we have today. It was the genesis of modern cooking, good baking and great quality food. Considering only one hundred years earlier Ireland had lost a sizeable number of the population to famine, this was a rapid turnaround. Our towns were evolving, farms had grown bigger and food was relatively plentiful and fresh. But it would be the 1960s and 1970s that would herald the biggest changes. So when the Queen was being crowned Ireland was a nation of bacon, sausage and eggs, or boiled eggs or porridge for breakfast. Meat and at least two vegetables in the middle of the day, often in stew form, plus a dessert while the evening saw a lighter bread based meal; soup or egg sandwiches for example. Friday was fish day and Sunday was the day for buns and cakes.
Today we can still choose natural and I would urge you to, but now we have knowledge, variety, better ingredients, better cooking methods and so, inevitably, better flavours and taste. Our biggest problem is food identity. We have come so far and absorbed so many cuisines that we have emerged a great food nation. Irish food today is super. We have great producers, artisans, chefs and restaurants. We have markets and small sole owned shops brimming with wonderful ingredients. We might not have an event as such to hang our hat on, but that shouldn’t stop us flying our Irish food flag proudly. Eat Irish meat, buy Irish cheese and enjoy and source Irish foodstuffs as much as you can; it’s good for our health and our economy and there is nothing wrong in being proud to be Irish.
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