By: Ryan Doyle
Think of a traditional Irish dish, one that would be served on St. Patrick’s Day or in front of an Irish family at home. What you are picturing is likely no more Irish than spaghetti and meatballs is Italian. Most dishes that Americans associate with the Irish are just that, American, or at least Irish-American. Now, explore the real history behind some “Irish” dishes and figure out fact from fiction.
Start with a simple one: soda bread. Soda bread in and of itself is a very Irish tradition, borne of the fact that Ireland was a fairly poor country for a long time. Soda bread is unique among breads in that it is leavened not by yeast, as is typical, but rather by the action of baking soda, usually in conjunction with the acidity of buttermilk. Traditionally, soda bread is comprised of only four ingredients: salt, baking soda, buttermilk and flour. These characteristics of soda bread make it ideal for a poorer family to make, it requires only the bare minimum of ingredients for bread and none of the truly expensive ones, salt here is only added for flavor and could be taken out if the family were impoverished. This makes the bread cheap, filling and adaptable; things can be added to the bread in times of plenty and reduced to a bare minimum as needed. While similar in construction, American soda bread seems to belie the fact that America has a lot more resources readily available to the average consumer. Looking at current American recipes for soda bread, we see additions like butter, eggs, sugar and more exotic things like dates and caraway seeds. This comprises something the Irish call “foreigner’s bread,” demonstrating that Americans may not be as connected to their roots as they might like to think. Indeed, the caraway seeds may be derived from the traditional Jewish-American recipes for rye bread, calling for caraway seeds to lend flavor to the loaf.
While soda bread is at least somewhat Irish in origin, the main dish that is less Irish than one might think is the legendary corned beef and cabbage. Corned beef does, in fact, date back to at least the twelfth century in Ireland, a reference in a poem of unknown authorship, The Vision of MacConglinne says about MacConglinne, the gluttonous king, “And he called for juicy old bacon, and tender corned-beef, and full-fleshed wether, and honey in the comb”. This makes sense in the context of Ireland because until the twentieth century, beef was never eaten unless the cattle had died. Cattle were valuable as producers of milk, as a source of work and of status. The Cattle Raid of Cooley shows the status accorded to cattle herds and prize cattle in ancient times, with kings and queens fighting over prized (magical) bulls who had extraordinary fertility, to be used to grow the herds of cattle. Two kingdoms come to war over the status associated with owning both of these legendary bulls, and the importance of cattle to the Irish has not waned since, seeing as milk is how many of the Irish were able to obtain enough nutrients to avoid things like rickets or other nutritional disorders.
The dish of corned beef and cabbage is probably an Americanization of the Irish bacon and cabbage dish, spurred by the fact of moving to America. As the Irish moved into large cities like Boston and New York, like many immigrants, they settled adjacent to other immigrant groups. The Irish might have settled next to a nice Jewish neighborhood and bought meat from their butchery, not the pork meat they were used to, but a cured beef cut equally amenable to being boiled and stewed. This meat was cured as a preservative and could keep for a long time, as well as being adapted to keep meat kosher by drawing out the blood in meat via osmosis. While keeping kosher was not something the Irish were concerned with, the meat was good for stewing and long cooking, a style of cooking that the Irish were more accustomed to using, given that their meat was likely toughened by work beforehand; the stewing helped to tenderize the meat.
To round off our list of things Americans consume on St. Patrick’s Day but aren’t Irish, the infamous green beer popular in Chicago and many other “Irish” pubs across the United States. Not only is the green beer a marketing scheme, but if a beer is able to be dyed green, it’s likely not of traditional Irish make. Irish brewing dates back to the Bronze Age, and early Irish beer is described as reddish barley beer, fortified with herbs and something called gentian instead of hops. Both hops and gentian are flowering plants used in brewing as a bitter herb to add more character and complexity to the brew. Unlike other herbs, however, gentian’s flavor is known for not mellowing over time, leading to a sharper taste. Later, Irish beers became associated with dark stouts, a type of ale known for its dark color and malted grain with flavors reminiscent of coffee and chocolate, courtesy of the Guinness Brewing company, founded in 1759 by Arthur Guinness, an Irishman, likely from County Kildare. These porters characterized Irish beers after 1799, the year that Guinness formally stopped producing anything but their stout. This was due to the stranglehold Guinness had on the market, they were nearly the only ones producing beer en masse in Ireland, and when they stopped making their non-stout ales, the market for them was subsumed by the stout market of Guinness. American beer, on the other hand, is largely based on German brewing traditions and incorporate lagers instead of ales, leading to a very different flavor. Lagers are known for a crisp, refreshing quality and are fermented from the bottom of the brew, whereas ales are top-fermented and known for a stronger and more robust flavor. These German-style beers are almost always light in color and could easily be dyed green, as opposed to the traditional Irish ales. Therefore, green beer on St. Patrick’s Day is nothing more than an American manifestation of Irish cultural stereotypes, and their way of celebrating the holiday.
In summary, most traditional Irish dishes aren’t necessarily those touted in pubs around the world. However, traditional Irish dishes do exist, if one is willing to do a little research on the subject. Potatoes, as soon as they were introduced, became a staple of the Irish diet and were often used in the quintessential Irish recipe – the national dish of Ireland, Irish stew. It may be slightly more difficult for Americans to make this dish traditionally because it uses lamb instead of beef, which can be harder to come by in America. The Irish have a great culinary history but it can’t be learned and studied in a pub in Chicago on St. Patrick’s Day.