Well now, this is embarassing.
There I go, week in, week out, presenting the potato as a force for good when, all the while, there is a dark side to consider. And no, I’m not talking about blighted blackstuff or the evils of french fried excess. No, though I do so grudgingly, I feel I must, in the grand historical scheme of things, include Spud the Usurper in the catalog of culinary villains.
It was last weekend’s Slow Roots Symposium in Sandbrook House, Co. Carlow, that put my potato-pushing into perspective, specifically the presentation by culinary arts students from the Cork Institute of Technology of a paper entitled: A Study of Irish Food Culture before the Arrival of the Potato.
The title alone was (and is) provocative. It asserts (1) that we have (or had, at any rate) an Irish food culture that was something more, and something other, than mere potatoes (there are those – including some who might be expected to know better – who would dismiss that notion as fanciful) (2) there was life in Ireland before potatoes (I don’t doubt but that there are those who think that fanciful too). It is a matter of record that the potato arrived here less than 450 years ago, so we clearly must have had something to eat before then, it’s just that most of us pay scant attention to what that might have been.
the effects of the potato’s arrival in Ireland and its impact on the national diet are being felt to this day, when it is viewed around the world as pretty much the ‘be-all and end-all’ of any national Irish cuisinefrom ‘A Study of Irish Food Culture before the Arrival of the Potato’
The point made by the presenters – including the doughty Swash Buachaill himself, Joe McNamee – was that not only did we have a long tradition of eating a variety of foods – among them milk and butter, hazelnuts and honey, oats, barley, wild berries, salted meats and seaweeds – but that the adoption of the potato lead to a demise in dietary diversity and the loss of know-how associated with older food ways. The country, in large part, became monospudmatic, and it is easy to see why: the potato formed the basis of a cheap and nutritious diet which was easy to prepare and required relatively little land on which to feed a family (a fact that is worthwhile remembering today). They likened the potato, in its effect, to a modern-day convenience food, supplanting previously traditional options, with, in the potato’s case, some disastrous historical consequences.
Moreover, the authors speculate that, had it not been for the dominant presence of the potato, our previously varied diet might, in time, have formed the basis of that which seems otherwise to elude us, a national cuisine. They suggest further that we might do well, as some already do, to revisit traditional foods and skills in attempting to shape a modern food culture that is both identifiably Irish and not potato-lead. “It leads to some potentially very exciting possibilities for the future of Irish food,” they say, but we must “put the potato back in its proper place.” Ouch.
In truth, though, the potato’s proper place in Irish cuisine is still on the plate and not off it. That does not mean that we cannot make room for other native foods – of course we should – nor yet that the potato should always appear in strictly traditional garb (the potato is nothing if not versatile). No, the potato is not the problem – there are new usurpers in town. You only have to look at what a typical visitor to Ireland is served to see that it is the proliferation of far less than Irish foods that needs to move over. Build a robust, inventive cuisine around our native bounty – spuds ‘n’ all – and perhaps they will.