MIDDAY in the centre of Dublin, and a great urge fell upon me for an old-fashioned Dublin pub lunch. It is one of the forgotten little truths of Irish life that the pub lunch was invented in Ireland -- not the great big cooked lunch, in which the pub becomes a restaurant for an hour or two, but a lunch that is tailor-made for serving in a licensed premises, namely a home-made soup, good, well-filled sandwiches and freshly-made coffee.
So I went into one of the oldest pubs in Dublin off Grafton Street, which has long cherished the traditions and the lore of the Irish pub. Well, it used to. There was piped music hissing and slithering all over the place, and two television sets were giving me Sky News in stereo. I asked for a coffee while I made up my mind about the sandwich.
"What kind of coffee do you want? An Americano, a negro, a latte, an espresso, a macchiato or a cappuccini?"
Well, I wanted a coffee, not a crash course in Esperanto. "A coffee, please. And could I see your sandwich menu, please?"
"We have panini, ciabatta, panini, crostini -- which would you like?"
"I want a sandwich, please."
"Sorry, we don't do sandwiches."
"We don't do sandwiches" -- let that be the epitaph over the grave of the Irish pub, as it pretends it is Starbucks.
But, of course, it can't be Starbucks. All it can do is to provide a pale and inept imitation thereof, with a mangled vocabulary, and bastardised foods, and television sets on in every corner, with noise-pollution pulsing out of the wallpaper, and instead of coffee and a sandwich, a swift and meaningless immersion-course in the languages of the Mediterranean.
But if it were only just the Mediterranean. The inchoate and undignified desire to be anything other than Irish means that the word "chip" -- as in deep-fried potato -- has almost vanished from our menus.
I have now seen "cod and French fries" in half a dozen places and even the irony-free "fish and frites". We apparently want to use any terminology which proves that we live in a European version of Seattle. But we don't. This is Ireland. We don't manufacture jumbo jets and we don't make 'Frasier' sitcoms and we are not the natural home of the world's largest coffee-house franchise. And this endless quest to prove that today we are not what we were yesterday is pathetic, degrading, undignified. Most of all, it is counter-productive.
Take Kylemore bakeries, which once made the beautiful Vienna roll. I don't know why it was called the Vienna roll, but it just was.
Its crispy, crunchy crust was covered in poppy seeds, and it had a light airy bread inside. It was the basis of all the filled-rolls in Dublin pubs. Smear it with half-a-pound of butter, and you'd be so happy you'd never think of sex again. But the Vienna roll could not compete with the hard-driven marketing-concept of the cuisine-de this or the cuisine-de that half-baked bread. Instead of the crispy rolls of the past, now we have chewy tubes of dough called "petit pains". Yes, and the marketing-men have won -- Kylemore bakeries is dead, and with it the traditional Vienna roll. Even in our supermarkets, those nice homely titles "bread roll" and "bap", have been displaced by the pretentious "petit pain".
THE sandwich, meanwhile, has been reduced to being a pre-made concoction, sold in a hard cellophane container, that you can only buy in a supermarket or an airport canteen. No matter what the modern sandwich is called, it is ice-cold and flavour-free. Indeed, to judge from its temperature, its appearance and its consistency, it is apparently composed largely of surplus donations to the national bovine artificial insemination bank.
It is not just that we are forgetting the simple ingredients that are the basics for good Irish sandwiches -- bread, butter, ham, eggs, salmon, cheese, tomatoes, cucumber and lettuce -- but that old Irish reliable, short-sighted greed, is raising its head again. In a pub in Kilcullen, Co Kildare, recently, I asked for two mineral waters with lime.
In addition to the price of the water, I was charged €2 -- yes, a euro each -- for the two dashes of lime cordial (and you can buy an entire bottle of lime in a supermarket for less than €1).
Petit pain, fish and French fries, frites, cappuccino and panini -- you can get this menu-speak anywhere, though I suspect you really do have to come to Ireland to get the €1 splash of lime.
But what are we doing? Do we really want to turn this country into a pathetic cross between Seattle and Barcelona, but without the Boeings or the bullfights, an imaginary land in which we have no history or foods of our own, and in which we no longer speak English but gibber away in some meaningless gastrobabble?
For if that really is our ambition, why, excellent! Because, we're well on our way to achieving it.