Anyone can tell you that our typical diet has changed since our parents’ and grandparents’ time, and is still changing today. Here, Alex Meehan explores what makes an ‘Irish diet.’
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the small village of Avoca in Co Wicklow was not exactly cosmopolitan. But though I didn’t realise it then, the food that my parents served up to my four siblings and me was more than a little unusual.
We routinely ate things like spaghetti with meatballs, home-made lasagne and New York diner-style desserts like Boston cream pie, along with spicy tacos and enchiladas. A macrobiotic-food phase, meanwhile, saw my mother pile up our plates with grains and pulses, much to our general horror.
Of course, there were also all the ‘normal’ foods — shepherd’s pie, roast chicken on Sundays and the usual chops and Saturday morning fry-ups — but it was only while visiting friends’ houses that I realised our diet was different from the norm.
We had my parents’ travels to thank for it. My father had spent a year in a seminary in California in the 1950s, from where he took day trips to Tijuana in Mexico that inspired a lifelong love of spicy food. Newly married, he and my mother moved to Manhattan in 1962 and immersed themselves in all the food that multicultural melting pot had to offer.
My ‘Irish diet’, therefore, was quite different to that of a lot of my peers; my 10-year-old son’s is different again. In recent years, the hashtag #thisisirishfood has regularly trended as chefs and food enthusiasts post pictures of restaurant meals and dishes they’ve cooked themselves.
But just what is Irish food today, and how different is it for different generations?
“When I wrote The Irish Cookbook last year, what exactly constituted Irish food was a really difficult question to answer. I came up against it even when I was looking at something as basic as spices. Traditional Irish food isn’t spicy, and yet pepper, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg have been here for a thousand years,” says JP McMahon, the Galway-based chef and cookbook author.
“Are ginger biscuits Irish? What about potatoes from America? What about Japanese ramen if it’s made with Irish chicken and seaweed; or barmbrack made with raisins — an ingredient imported into Ireland from Indonesia. I came across a recipe recently for a lobster curry that was recorded in the Mahon Papers in Westport in 1822. What do you do with that?”
McMahon believes the concept of a cuisine unique to a place is like the concept of race — entirely man-made and ultimately meaningless. “It’s constructed to create communities, but unfortunately when you create communities you exclude other communities. Realistically, you can say that Irish food is a branch of a kind of food eaten in the old British Isles and, past that, is part of European cooking. But it breaks down very quickly,” he says.
“People want to believe that there is much more division than there is. To talk about food that is authentically Irish, you’d really have to go back to ancient times — to bog butter, oysters, oatcakes, barley loaves and sour milk.”
Margaret Hickey is the author of Ireland’s Green Larder, a social history of Ireland’s relationship with food, and has documented the changes that have taken place in how Irish people eat over the decades. “It used to be quite possible to talk about the diet of the vast majority of Irish people, because they were either tenant farmers in the country or poor people in the cities,” she says. “Either way, there was relatively little choice.
“Most rural people ate food they produced themselves — potatoes, cabbage, bacon, dairy, a chicken now and again, and the pork produce created when a pig was killed. The poor in the cities got less, and that was pretty much it.”
Even though Irish people are now familiar with ingredients and recipes from all over the world, Hickey reckons there is still “a lingering suspicion”, even among some young people, about what she describes as “quare yokes — unusual cuts of meat or strongly flavoured ingredients. Some things that were normal in the past are now seen as exotic, however, such as offal and game”.
Hickey also believes that our historical attitudes to fish are slowly changing. “Eating fish was once something done for penance on a Friday,” she says. “Today, restaurants serve fish more imaginatively and with flair, and people are coming back to it.”
Lucy Magnier is 25 and lives in Milltown in Dublin. For her generation, convenience is the name of the game — she works hard and places a premium on her free time. She enjoys cooking, but has no qualms about ordering food to be delivered or picking up ready meals to take the time and hassle out of an evening meal.
Is that a generational thing?
“People my age don’t have as much time to cook. I’m at home at the moment because of the pandemic, and I’m enjoying Mum cooking for all of us. But when I’m working, I get home after 6pm. I’m tired. I don’t want to cook a roast dinner,” she says. “It’s not laziness — I think the older generation worked in a different way to how we do. Twenty years ago, it wasn’t so easy to just lift your mobile and have your dinner delivered 20 minutes later.”
Magnier’s current favourite for a midweek treat is Bujo, an upmarket burger restaurant in Sandymount. “They use really good quality beef and it’s done really well. I adore that. My mum always drilled into us that it was important to know where the food you eat comes from. Likewise, I have friends who are mad into the gym, and they do a lot of meal prepping to support that,” she says.
Chef Graeme Dodrill (42) of Peploe’s restaurant on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin, knows a lot about food and fine dining. However, he says that as a child his diet was typical of that of a lot of his peers — quite plain.
“Normally it was two or three vegetables, normally boiled, and alongside them went a piece of lamb or a piece of chicken. That was it pretty much every day, and then at the weekend there’d be a roast, either chicken or beef,” he says.
“Like a lot of Irish people, we didn’t eat much fish. One thing we did do was take a yearly family holiday, usually somewhere around the Mediterranean, and that was a real eye-opener. We went to Spain, Portugal and Turkey, and there was lots of unusual food to try.”
Along with his partner Candice, Dodrill has spent time in Dubai and, as a result, his personal food tastes run to the ‘exotic’. “We like our flavours and spices, so that features a lot. Usually we cook Italian once a week and then a lot of Asian stir-fries and fish for the rest of the week. We try to only eat red meat once a week, because I run and try to look after my health,” he says.
Deirdre Harbison (66) grew up in Cork but now lives in Limerick. When she was a girl, a roast chicken was a weekly treat on a Sunday, but adjusted for inflation she calculates the same bird that fed her family then would cost €40 now.
“Back then, it was a weekly treat, and it was basically an organic free-range chicken. Now, costs have dropped and I think most families wouldn’t think twice about roasting a chicken on a weekday evening. Likewise, back then, sweet things were rare. For a treat, dessert would be a home-made apple tart on a Sunday.”
Later in life, Harbison took a cooking course at night in Cathal Brugha Street Catering College, which she credited with giving her a lifelong love of cooking. She owns “hundreds” of cookbooks and enjoys experiencing international cultures through cuisines. “When I was in my 20s in Cork, I remember the first Chinese restaurant opened and we went. Looking back on it, it probably wasn’t very good but it was extremely exotic and we loved it,” she says.
“There were no Chinese takeaways back then, only a few restaurants here and there, even in Dublin. Today, you can get Chinese food in every town in Ireland. It was recently Chinese New Year so we had three days of preparing and making Chinese food at home, so I suppose it’s come full circle. It was lovely.”
According to author Margaret Hickey, the future for Irish food is extremely bright. “There are a lot of chefs and cooks in Ireland who are very proud of Irish produce and Irish food. There’s a great drive to get top-quality products out there. Irish beef, dairy and things like oysters are the best in the world in many ways. When the rest of the world wakes up to that, it will be great for the food scene,” she says.