March 2004

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A Brief History of
Irish Cuisine

Dan Moore
Deli Manager

When you mention Irish food, the first thing that comes to one’s mind is, of course, the potato. The potato, however, is a relative latecomer to Irish cuisine. Seafood, leafy greens, root vegetables, and a variety of berries were abundant in Ireland and were mainstays of the diet long before the potato arrived. In fact, salmon is probably a more representative meal in Irish cuisine than any potato dish, and it plays a role in one of the nation’s oldest myths. (According to the legend, the “magical salmon of knowledge” grants vast wisdom to a boy destined to become a great warrior.) Irish peasants, who couldn’t afford the equipment necessary to navigate the ocean and therefore get to the seafood, ate kale, cabbage, carrots, and onions that grew wild across the Irish countryside.

Hunting and Farming
Agriculture took hold in Ireland around 3500 B.C., and, with that, the cultivation of grains and the raising of livestock. The small communities scattered about the island were very much self-sufficient in hunting and farming, making use of local fowl, deer, and vegetation in their cooking. Many older Irish recipes center on the use of venison or seafood, alongside kale and cabbage, usually cooked in one big cauldron, where it could cook all day while the folks were out working in the field or hunting the next day’s supper. One-pot meals are still a staple of Irish food, and many people blame this tradition for the Irish/British habit of cooking veggies until they are rendered unrecognizable.

The Introduction of the Potato

Then, in the 16th century, a momentous occasion in the history of Irish cuisine occurred. The introduction of the potato to Ireland from Peru changed Irish agriculture, cuisine, and history forever and not in a good way. Irish peasants found that they could get nourishment and nutrition from raising potatoes and, even better, potatoes were easy to grow. They required little labor, training, or technology, and provided more calories per acre than any other crop—perfect for poor farmers. Originally many varieties of potatoes were grown, until one type of potato (the “lumper”) became the dominant crop. The “lumper” potato was one of the worst tasting varieties, but it was incredibly fertile and had a much higher per acre yield.

The Origin of Blight

It was this relatively sudden reliance on one crop (especially one variety of one crop) that made Ireland susceptible to famine. Genetic variation lends protection against disease, pests, and climate problems (a lesson we’d do well to remember nowadays). A slight climate change in the island’s weather made conditions ripe for a fungus, which caused blight. Although not all the crop was ruined, the remaining tubers planted the following year harbored some of the fungus and that crop was ruined as well. One in every nine people in Ireland died as a result. The tragic irony is that, in spite of the potato blight, plenty of food was grown in Ireland in those years. Most of it was intended for export to England, where it would fetch a higher price. So the Irish poor didn’t die because they had no food, they died because they couldn’t afford the food available.

The Walled Garden
Some good did eventually come out of this episode. The walled garden had at the same time come into fashion amongst the wealthier classes of Irish society. (Go figure it was walled; there was a famine going on.) People were teaching themselves the art of growing a variety of fruits (like pineapple, melons, and oranges) as well as improving the variety of vegetables they grew. Even more importantly, they were improving techniques for cultivating these items in Irish soil.

Cottage Gardens
Meanwhile, the poor were beginning to suffer an outbreak of blindness. Apparently those starving lacked sufficient amounts of vitamin A. The government stepped in, and began paying people to visit the various counties and give lessons on constructing these “cottage gardens,” and specifically on how to grow staple vegetables, like carrots, to ward off the blindness outbreak. They also provided cheap seed and planting plots. Little by little, Irish agriculture began to recover from the potato. Today the potato is still an important part of the Irish diet in traditional dishes like colcannon and rumpledethumps, but the cuisine has become much more balanced.

The Importance of Local, Sustainable Foods

Because the Industrial Revolution originally passed Ireland by for the most part, agriculture remained the most important Irish industry. The slow industrialization also helped encourage consumption of locally produced and home-produced foods from meat and seafood to dairy and vegetables, since there were still few roads and factories for which people could leave their farms. The history of Irish food has taught nothing if not that the mission of local, sustainable foods with a strong genetic variety can make all the difference in a nation’s well-being.