Commonplace, Vol 1, Issue 5

In which the writer digs into the 1970-1990s, and then wanders off into current food

Hello! Today, I’m thinking about traditional food in Ireland. Not the Traditional Foods of Ireland, your soda breads and your potato farls, but the things that we’ve actually eaten on a day to day basis in the last twenty years or so, and how that’s different to the way in which we ate in the 80s and 90s. In particular, what was for dinner in, say 1990.

I lived in two places growing up. Camolin, where my mother cooked, and Ballycadden, where after my mother’s death, my father cooked, or I cooked, or very occasionally someone else cooked. I visited a lot of other people’s houses during the first bit; friends and relatives and places where my father was fitting kitchens, and rather fewer during the second, more due to school and homework taking more time than anything else. So I think in some ways I didn’t see the progression of the mid 90s from the background of Irish food as it had more or less been for half a century to Irish food as it was at the turn of the millenium. Or else it happened very quickly just around the time I was arriving in Dublin.

My mother’s cookery had two major sources. One was the absolutely core-Irish secondary school home economics textbook, All In The Cooking, Vol. 1. Volume 2 existed, but very few schools taught it, and it goes for a few hundred euros now. Volume 1 was often in the 40 euro range until it was re-published a few years ago. My mother’s copy, now very battered, is still in Ballycadden, and I had a copy that I found in a second-hand bookshop in Dundrum for about fifteen years, although I gave it to my brother a while back. It honestly comprises the bulk of Irish cookery for about five decades, and goes from the prosaic “Boiled Eggs” to the… well, actually still pretty prosaic “Fried Liver & Bacon”.

Her second major source was a box of index-card recipes, Marguerite Patten’s Recipe Cards.

(Assuming that I have not messed up the image as I did last time, you should see these above.)

They, and their box, make up an extremely 1970s cultural object (actually published in 1967) and were used and current through the 1980s. About two-thirds of the cards are the ones that came in the box, each with a picture of the dish on one side (half and half colour and black & white), and the actual recipe on the back. Some (the majority, to be fair) are for fairly simple things like the Egg and Bacon Pie you see at the front, or Irish Stew, or Ginger Cake or Lamb and Leek Casserole. But others are for objects of mild horror like the Cornflour Mould:

(“For four people you need: 1¼ oz cornflour with flavouring OR 1 packet blancmange powder; I pint milk; 1-2 oz. sugar”)

You can see my mother’s annotated “K3” at the top, wherein she had reordered the cards according to some other approach. The other third of the box, and the bit I’m really more interested in here, are handwritten cards. These are card or paper, carefully cut to the correct size, and with recipes either written on, or clipped from magazines or papers and pasted on.

It should be noted that at least among the people I knew, my mother was accounted an adventurous cook. Given that some of the things that were considered odd among her repertoire, such as the fish pie (varied fish and chopped boiled eggs, white sauce, potato on top), were directly from the pages of All In The Cooking, I’m honestly in some awe of the baseline from which friends and relatives were looking. Although I know of one family that ate boiled ham, potatoes and cabbage three hundred and sixty four days a year. On Christmas Day, they added turkey, I’m told.

I don’t remember many of these additions being cooked. I would guess, though, that my mother had cooked most of them at least once before I was born, and it seems reasonable that creative and experimental cookery took a bit of a back seat once there was one small child in the house, let alone the eventual three. But they provide a body of recipes that I can go through and say “in at least one house, these were things that were cooked occasionally”. Because of the aspirational nature of cookery book acquisition, that’s actually a hard thing to find evidence for otherwise.

There are lots of recipes of baked things - pies, puddings, cakes. There are more preserves - pickles and jams - than I was expecting. There are three handwritten ways to cook rabbit, and one for pigeon, that I’ve found so far. There’s a recipe for Eccles Cakes, and one for a hot fruit compote that is pretty nearly exactly the Finnish fruit soup we didn’t think was even known in the Isles. And a rather unexpected array of pates, meat loaves, and the like. But what’s not here - which confirms what I was thinking when I went digging and before I got distracted by this stuff - is pasta or savoury rice. No couscous, no bulghur wheat or the like either, of course. And looking among the published recipes, there is one single paella, and a listing under “Supper Dishes” for a “Cheese Noodle Ring”, although I can’t find the card for that. But on a percentage basis, the only savoury carbohydrates in this box are bread and potatoes.

I know there were Chinese restaurants in Dublin in the 1960s. I even know my parents went to them occasionally. There might have been an Indian restaurant somewhere too. I assume, without much evidence, that there were some Italian places. But these don’t seem to have come over into people’s own cooking at all. To wit, I encountered pasta (other than canned spaghetti in tomato sauce, which I’m going to venture doesn’t count) for the very first time when I was about 10 or 11. I suspect I met savoury rice around the same point. Curry was an absolutely closed book.

The “Round The World” category in the recipe box does include a “Chili con Carne”, with the subtitle “Mexican Beef and Bean Stew”. The ingredient line “1 tablespoon chilli powder” has an asterisk, and the footnote “Extremely hot - if making for the first time use less, then add during cooking”. It is to be served with toast, which seems like the most 1970s thing I can think of.

The comparison between this and modern Irish cookery, wherein spaghetti bolognese and curries are comfort food, and sushi is on supermarket shelves, is kind of startling. I know that there was an absolute blooming of ethnic food in Dublin in the early 2000s, but some of this was definitely arriving in the 90s, even as I wasn’t paying much attention. Obviously, some of my perception is warped by coming from very rural Ireland to Dublin.

Oddly enough, I give the credit to television. I mean, I blame television for a lot of stuff, including the fact that when I came to Dublin I had no idea what anyone was saying, because they all communicated in Simpsons quotes, so it’s fitting that I give it some credit too. TV shows imported from the US (Friends, in particular) showed pizza and lasagne and Chinese food and sushi and so forth, and once they showed up at all in our shops, we pounced on them, and felt very international and modern and so forth. And then they just became normal.

And that’s all perfectly sensible, but it does leave me wondering where the very clearly 80s books with titles like 101 Curries and Goulashes for Microwaves that you see in second-hand bookshops came from (I made that title up, by the way, or at least I really hope I did). Most of the charity shops on Capel Street (some of which do not appear notably to have changed since about 1995) have a full shelf of cookery books, and at least half of them are of that ilk.

It’s a little odd to think that the breakfast roll and the chicken fillet roll, two absolute mainstays of Irish food consumption now, weren’t around then. I don’t know if the demi-baguette was around; I am reasonably certain that I remember the deli counter at a shop in Aughrim, Co. Wicklow, which would make up rolls-with-stuff-in, being a very new and exciting thing in about 1989.

Anyway. My overall research question here of “what was a typical Irish main meal in 1990?” is proving harder to reach than expected, mostly because it falls into that undocumented space that causes so much hassle in domestic and culinary history. And I know it sounds mad to think of 1990, which is only five minutes ago, as history, but if I was covering the 1980s in a university history module in 2014, it’s about time for the 90s to roll in. The fact that I can’t easily answer this question (other than personal experience, like) has some bearing there too.

I think it’s fair to say that simple meat-potatoes-and-two-veg meals were common, and that casseroles, stews and the like, plus shepherd’s pie, made up a lot of the rest. Fish fingers, possibly with chips (home-made, though, none of these bought chips notions) were there too. It was just on the edge of prepared, microwavable food, so things like the Findus “crispy pancake” were appearing (I must at some point find out what those were). Sausages and baked beans were pretty common stuff-fed-to-kids, and there was a sausage casserole that I disliked at the time, but remember in a rather better light now. Indeed, now that I come to think of it, kids being fed separately, in the gap between the end of school and the work day ending, was a common experience, and I don’t think there are enough stay-at-home parents (current circumstances aside) for that to be a majority thing anymore.

There is some food-in-these-strange-times coverage in the Irish Times, coming from Bord Bia, and actual sales figures, rather than journalistic opinion, which has a relevant quote:

As the lockdown was imposed, people moved away from fast foods and ready meals towards slower cooking and making childhood recipes and takeout-style dishes to bring familiarity to an unfamiliar world. Sales of “comfort carbs” such as pasta and noodles climbed significantly over recent weeks.

And also:

[Rory McDonnell, Bord Bia’s head of strategic planning’s] research, meanwhile, points out that “time-poor consumers have almost overnight moved from the world of compromised convenience foods to a world of home cooking and even slow cooking”, adding that “being stuck at home means the kitchen is becoming a focal point of our day”.

This is so much a description of most historical domestic situations (Big Houses aside) that it’s nearly comical. The fact that I spent about eight hours in the kitchen yesterday is not lost on me here, either.

Thus far in our lockdown, I have avoided the tendency to bake, mostly because I don’t really bake much anyway. Much as I love baked goods, my own main skillset lies in stovetop cookery, roasts, and the like, where I have some instinct for what’s happening with cooking times and proportions of ingredients and so on. Yesterday’s cookery included an Afghan carrot hotpot, from Sally Butcher’s Veggiestan, which came out very well, making some of the Middle Eastern za’atar spice mix, because I’m going to need it for something later in the week, constructing a chilli for dinner, assembling a Turkish condiment called biber salçası (or at least the first stages of it; I still need to cook it down), and… making bread.

The bread was partly experimental, and partly to make sure we had something for the “toast” bit of this morning’s avocado toast. I used a recipe we got from Ursula, which is originally for a mix of wheat and rye flours, and made it with just wheat flour. I’ll need to make some adjustments when I make it again, I think; the bread itself is excellent, but for its second rise (yeast, not sourdough), it opted to go sideways rather than up, so I have a large flat loaf. My current state of belief is that the combination of a relatively high water-to-flour ratio and the lack of the more dense rye flour is responsible for that. I fancy that rye gives more structure to the loaf (although thinking about gluten formation, I could be dead wrong there) and it certainly absorbs more water than the wheat. The water to flour ratio is about 1:2 by volume, and I think it needs to be closer to 2:5 or even 4:11 (which is exactly what it is for the Arabic flatbreads I’ve been making). for pure wheat flour.

I could, of course, have read about all this in advance, and possibly had wider toast this morning, but I find I learn best by trying a thing, observing how it goes, and then doing the reading. It gives what are otherwise abstract concepts a bit more to get a grip on. The bread is entirely edible, mind, and barring that I didn’t flour the baking tray enough, such that I was considering finding a chisel to get it off, it baked perfectly and made excellent toast.

I am considering baking some sweet stuff, but don’t want to establish the kind of precedent that will enable my stomach to wake me at 3am going “make a lemon cake, Drew”. My willpower is not at its strongest at that hour, and if I know I’m able, night-time baking is a definite risk.

In the garden, the potatoes are coming up strongly on about 90% of the lazy beds, and not at all on the remaining 10%, one continuous section, for no reason I can see. The carrots are planted, but since the junior cat, Baxter (also, relevantly, largest cat), made himself a dust bath in one end of the bed, I don’t know how well they’re going to come up. The apple and the blackcurrant are in blossom, the gooseberry is actually forming tiny fruits already, and the herbs and strawberries are getting going properly. The peas and pumpkins are yet to go in the ground, but that’ll happen this week or at the weekend at latest.

Things I’m likely to talk about in future issues, since people were asking: the historical Irish aversion to fish; food planning (for large groups and for week-long periods, though not both at once); what cookery books I have and use; wild food; possibly the odd review of newly acquired books and an even more remote possibility of doing some interviews. If you have food-related topics you’d like me to cover, please do let me know.

This issue has been brought to you by neighbourhood walking tours with the dog, a rainy morning, some more mature semi-feral fruit trees which I will re-visit in autumn, and numerous online conversations about food. Eat well, and I shall write again soon.

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