One of the best and most fitting crutches for writing book reviews regularly is tying the text in with current events. At Christmas, any book that deals with the topic will do, either in exposition or in theme. Food always works: we all have some ceremonial food on a holiday. But this topical trope tends to run aground on St. Patrick's Day.
There are two things wrong with St. Patrick's Day that are always wrong with Saint Patrick's Day. First, it's a single day. What poor planning. Every person who celebrates it recognizes the necessity for at least a week of festivities. Not that most people would avail themselves of the full week, mind you, but at least there wouldn't be any inconvenience about a morning meeting following the celebration. Truth be told, everyone needs at least three days: one for irrational exuberance, one for recovery and a third for returning to something like a normal sleep schedule. Better to just make it a week so others can't chart how someone spent their time.
Second, most subjects that are seemingly "Irish" are touchy to advocate one way or another. (A good example: my previous paragraph clearly refers to drunkenness, which itself is considered an offensive stereotype of the Irish, yet must be mentioned in relation to how most people celebrate the day, irrespective of their ethnic background.) For instance, today I wanted to talk about an Irish history book—any Irish history book. But as I pored over my shelves and went back to look at bibliographies I'd written in college, I couldn't find a single text that wouldn't be immediately contentious, a historiographical stab in favor of (or against) a point of view about Ulster, protestantism, the Catholic Church, etc.
Even Irish literature is similarly fraught with difficulty. Jonathan Swift was Irish, but he was an Anglican, and his "Modest Proposal" is still incendiary depending on the audience. Oscar Wilde's sybaritic lifestyle and Anglicized pose present a problem to the Irish themselves: it's important to add him to the pantheon of Irish writers, but his success, identity and literary concerns seem exclusively English. I could talk about Beckett or Joyce, but I'd rather not step on fellow blogger Mark Brendle's toes.
Given this trouble, I thought I'd turn to what I normally turn to during any particular holiday: food. For Cinco de Mayo, my wife and I make Mexican food. For Bastille Day, French. Really, any excuse for cooking something different will do. If Canada had a particular Canadian cuisine outside of poutine, we'd do that for Canada Day. Logically, we made corned beef for St. Patrick's Day, taking advantage of the wonders accorded to us by salt, a mineral I talked about here.
Yet, surprisingly here too is the topic nationalized and perhaps pointedly particularized. We own a wonderful cookbook, Darina Allen's Traditional Irish Cooking, yet the book itself seems to advance an argument. This isn't a bad thing, but, well, it seems of a piece with any other discussion of Ireland and Irish issues.
The recipes it includes are delicious. They're wonderful. Everything we have cooked from it has been totally delightful. But we haven't cooked very many recipes from it because we are not Irish. Many of the more alluring recipes call for native Irish greens and seasonings that simply are not available in the United States or, if they are, can be had for something like a mint.
This makes sense, culturally. The Elizabethan and Stuart stewardship (or occupation, or imperial imposition) of Ireland introduced the kind of English diet that we erroneously assign to the Irish as well: boiled meat, potatoes, cabbages, etc. Even what we consider to be the quintessential modern Irish event—the Potato Famine—is something of an import. While the potato blight was a biological event, the dietary dependency on the potato was an importation of the foreign ruling class. The potato, historically and anthropologically, is about as fundamentally "Irish" as the horse is fundamentally "Native American."
Worse, the famine was so pervasive that many Irish went back to early culinary roots and harvested herbs, greens, and grains that had, in more prosperous times, seemed backward-thinking, some uncouth remnant of what the nation had been. Thus the famine's conditions stigmatized what had actually been traditional seasonings and ingredients. Even after the famine had passed, utilizing authentic Irish foods in, well, Irish food seemed like a poor person's alternative.
Only in the latter half of the 20th century, as Ireland established itself as an economic factor (and finally enjoyed a birth rate that exceeded the emigration rate) did the stigma begin to lift. Allen's book is both a product of these processes and a sharp commentary on them. The recipes are definitively, nationally and (for those not in Europe) locally Irish because they should be. We expect authentic Chinese recipe books to include authentic Chinese vegetables and seasonings. Only we don't blanche at seeing them, because the prominence of eastern herbs and seasonings has been established for centuries by their desirability and western trade for it, resulting in their being in the local market almost as if by default.
Ireland didn't enjoy such luxurious cultural dissemination, although it should have. The reason native Irish food products aren't on our shelves relies on the early complicity of the Irish people to stigmatize those ingredients as "poor" or "famine food." Now that most western eaters recognize and celebrate the uniqueness and diversity of local ethnic/national foods, the pre-conquest diet of Ireland is making a comeback.
Unfortunately, as I said, your grocery store might not be keeping up with trends as rapidly as you'd like it to. In this case, perhaps it's better to refer to a cookbook like Irish Pub Cookbook, which you might say trades in some elements of Anglo-culinary imperialism (just as you might think that the inclusion of "pub" trades in a conception of Ireland as a drinking nation that also has a food menu) but still provides solid and tasty recipes in line with the Irish food you'd like to try.
It's a book that makes the best of a bad and temporary situation, while making food you will enjoy. Take advantage of it and bide your time until local markets add native and unique ingredients that can help you make native and unique foods.
Now that you've had your corned beef and cabbage for St. Patty's Day, where do you want to go next on the Irish menu?
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