between famine and feast
A SHORT HISTORY OF IRISH CUISINE
Some historians divide the traditional Irish diet into three distinct periods: the thousands of years before the introduction of the potato; the introduction of the potato in the 17th century; and the massive failure of the potato crop from 1845 to 1847. What the Irish ate — and the way they cooked it — changed very little from prehistoric times to the arrival of St. Patrick, the Roman-British missionary who came to convert the Celts to Christianity in the fifth century. Revolving around dairy, grains, a bit of meat, and foraged vegetables, the native diet continued to be relatively stable for the next 1500 years.
The island’s lush green pastures supported herds of milk cows that produced the white foods (or banbidh) at the center of the original subsistence diet: milk, buttermilk, curds, cheese, and butter, which was often buried in the bogs to flavor and preserve it. Grains, particularly oats and barley in the form of porridge or gruel — or as a thickener for stews — were the second most important component of the pre-potato diet.
In A History of Irish Cuisine (Before and After the Potato), John Linnane notes that cooking in early Ireland was mostly done in constantly simmering cauldrons. Wild and feathered game, as well as river and lake fish — supplemented with the occasional hedgehog — were either boiled in the cauldron or roasted on spits or hot stones. Honey and salt, along with wild onions and greens, were the primary seasonings. Coastal communities, Linnane writes, were able to add fish, shellfish, and edible seaweed to their stew pots.
Although the Irish ate some beef, their prized cattle were slaughtered only when they were too old to produce. Pigs feasted on acorns in the forests, and sheep grazed in the open country. Mead — the oldest alcoholic beverage in the world — was made from fermented honey, herbs, and spices; corn was grown for ale. Nuts, onions, leeks, mushrooms, and wild greens (such as sorrel and nettles) were foraged rather than farmed. By the eighth century, cultivation of celery, carrots, parsnips, and cabbage was underway.
“The rights of the people to utilize the natural resources of the land were jealously guarded by the population,” Linnance writes, “until the coming of the Normans” in the late 12th century, when the conquerors limited the indigenous Irish’s access to hunting and fishing grounds.
FROM PATRICK TO POTATOES Sixteenth-century Spanish conquistadors brought both Incan gold and potatoes to Europe, where the spuds were quickly adopted by the French and Germans — and rejected by the British, who were suspicious of the strange new food that grew underground. The crown’s decision to test the tuber in Ireland led to a short-term improvement in tenant farmers’ nutrition, a boom in the population of the poor, and overdependence on a single crop.
By the 17th century, potatoes, supplemented with milk and curds, were a staple of the Irish diet. Families could easily grow enough potatoes to both feed themselves and sell the surplus, along with a pig or two, to pay their rent.
Two great famines — the first in 1739, the second, in 1845 — changed the course of Irish history.
“Before the famine,” culinary historian Barbara Haber writes in From Hardtack to Home Fries, Ireland “was described as the most densely populated country in Europe. By the end of the decade that circumscribed the Great Hunger, 1846-1855 … between 1.1 and 1.5 million people died from starvation and diseases related to malnutrition.” Within that same decade, “two million more of the Irish left their country and settled elsewhere — that vast majority in England and the United States.”
BACK IN THE USA Mugs of green beer and platters of corned beef and cabbage may be synonymous with St. Patrick’s Day in North America — but that’s not how the holiday was traditionally celebrated in Ireland. Until the 1970s, Irish pubs were closed by law on St. Paddy’s feast day. And if meat were eaten, it was more likely to be lamb or bacon, with which the Irish have had a centuries-long love affair.
It’s not that corned beef was unknown in Ireland. As a 2013 article by Shaylyn Esposito on the website of the Smithsonian points out, “The British invented the term ‘corned beef’ in the 17th century to describe the size of the salt crystals used to cure the meat, the size of corn kernels . ... With the large quantities of cattle and high quality of salt, Irish corned beef was the best on the market.” Ironically, the people producing that corned beef couldn’t afford to eat it.
The meat that the Irish diaspora in the United States could most afford was corned beef. But it was not the same corned beef their ancestors made. “What we think of today as Irish corned beef is actually Jewish corned beef,” Esposito writes, “thrown into a pot with cabbage and potatoes” — Irish and Jewish immigrants often lived in contiguous neighborhoods in cities like New York, Boston, and Chicago.
Culinary historians have noted that in the late 20th century, the Irish diet began to return to the fresh and locally sourced meat, fish, grains, dairy, and vegetables that had previously defined it. Does that mean you’ll need to break out the oatmeal and curds to capture the true spirit of St. Paddy, who never met a potato on the Emerald Isle? A more satisfying way to honor the generations may be with a big bowl of champ — a popular Irish dish of mashed potatoes blended with hot milk and green onions and topped with a large knob of butter. Just don’t dye it green. At Back Street Bistro (513 Camino de los Marquez), the beloved soup operation is celebrating the occasion with corned beef and cabbage, to go only. Call ahead to order and pick up on Friday, March 17. Farther south, Blue Corn Café and Brewery (4056 Cerrillos Road) is offering corned beef and cabbage as well as a Reuben sandwich. Fire & Hops (222 N. Guadalupe St.) hits the gastropub vibe with house-made corned beef and Irish-style beers on tap. Roland Richter cooks up a half-ton of corned beef every year at Joe’s Dining (2810 Rodeo Road) and serves it with red potatoes and a wedge of cabbage. La Fiesta Lounge at La Fonda (100 E. San Francisco St.) hosts a Colkegan whiskey tasting (1-4 p.m.) as well as the requisite corned beef and cabbage plus fish and chips — all with a side of live Irish music from 7:30-11 p.m. Loyal Hound Pub (730 St. Michael’s Drive) extends its commitment to fresh, locally sourced ingredients with a home-cured corned beef brisket and shepherd’s pie. At downtown’s venerable Santacafé (231 Washington St.), you can choose either a corned beef and cabbage entrée or an Irish-themed four-course menu. Santa Fe Brewing Company (35 Fire Place) debuts a new Irish red beer, while Second Street Brewery at the Railyard (1607 Paseo de Peralta) hopes its three new Irish-style brews will arrive in time to salute St. Paddy. Corned beef and cabbage, a Reuben, shepherd’s pie, and Irish nachos (corned beef on potato chips) anchor the special menu. Finally, Chef Jeffrey Kaplan of Rowley Farmhouse Ales (1405 Maclovia St.) dishes up local-lamb Irish stout stew with Old Windmill Cheddar dumplings; wash it down with a pint of Avery Brewing’s Tweak bourbon-barrel-aged imperial coffee stout. — P.W.B.