Our Food Past or Our Food Future?

I was given this heavy tome by the publishers to review and months later I’m finally getting my thoughts down. Whilst it is a fantastic collection of recipes and information that all Irish cooks should own, I fear that along with Darina’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking, we are looking at our past.

The author Colman Andrews is a very well known food-writer and co-founder of the famed Saveur magazine in the US. This may look like a coffee-table staple but it is genuinely jammed with lots of recipes that could easily have been lost forever.

It’s clear reading the book that Colman is not claiming to be an expert in Irish food since he defers to many of the Irish greats like Darina and profiles some of our Irish food heroes like Anthony down the road in Ummera. The only time this becomes a problem is when he refers to things being very common when I know that they are small-scale and highly-localised. The perfect example is fraughan gathering. This is presented as something many people do. The reality is that 95% of the population would have no idea what a fraughan is and most of those live in boggy country areas. Their parents or grandparents may have gathered them but they are now buying Chilean strawberries in SuperValu.

This leads to the biggest problem I ran into when reading it. Quite simply it does not reflect mainstream current Irish eating or food. It is a lens on our food history and it tells us what foodies, Slow Food people and gurus like Myrtle or Darina are interested in, but it has no relationship to where most people are now.

My mother was flicking through it recently and ran into a word I had never heard of: stir-about. It’s an old word for porridge. Neither she nor my father had heard it for decades. This is a perfect example of what we are losing as we “modernize”.

I don’t see this as a problem with the book, I see it as a problem with us. Is our future going to be 100% Tesco-ized? Everything pre-prepared, cooked and packaged? Or Tesco-Finest for those with money? Is U.S.-style obesity heading our way? Is the idea of cooking with incredibly small budgets using things like cheap cuts of meat gone and replaced with take-aways and extruded shapes?

Anyone who reads this blog know I love food and love seeing artisan produce do well but at the back of my mind I worry we have gone from “proper food” being something everyone ate, due to economic necessity, to something utterly middle-class and slightly sniffy.

The current recession should be an opportunity for this type of cooking to come back but the skills are gone. Is there any hope? What could be done in the education system to bring these skills back?

Having stupid men on the sides of buses telling us how easy it is to cook certainly isn’t the answer either. How about replacing compulsory Irish in schools with compulsory cooking? Imagine a government doing something audacious now to solve a future health epidemic whilst finally admitting failure in an 80 year language effort.

Apologies for such a negative post about such a great book but I think I’ve been depressed since watching Food Inc. Movies like that along with efforts like Jamie Oliver’s and Hugh F-W’s are mainly just preaching to the converted. How do we convert those who could benefit most from a return to the past?

Colman’s book is not the solution but at least it is helping to preserve the knowledge.

In case the review was lost in my brain-dump above, this is a superb book. If you want a broad sweep of traditional Irish cooking you should buy it.

Conor O'Neill

Tech guy who likes running slowly

Bandon, Cork, Ireland http://conoroneill.com