between famine and feast


Pasatiempo - - AMUSE-BOUCHE -

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.

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