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discussion & revival
of British foodways.

NO.53
SUMMER2017

All in the Cooking: An icon of twentieth century Ireland.

By Pierre Teillhard de Selby

1. A culinary laggard catches up.

All in the Cooking first appeared in 1946, when the reputation of Irish food was famously and justly poor. It would remain the standard text in Irish schools for three decades.

All in the Cooking arguably represents the first actually Irish cookbook, a rather extraordinary thing considering its original date of publication. K. M. O’Sullivan, a contemporary educator, anyway considered it pioneering:

“So far the only Cookery Books available to students and to the public in Ireland were, with one or two exceptions, compiled abroad, and while these were quite suitable to the needs of the people for whom they were specially written, they could not be regarded as meeting fully the requirements and tastes of the Irish student or housewife.” ( All in “Preface”)

Just what those requirements encompassed remains unclear, but frugality lies among them, as the prevalence of margarine and a poetically entitled section of All in the Cooking on “Re-Heats of Cold Meats” demonstrate.

The book itself does not explain why so many of the Irish remained indifferent to the quality of their food (all now is changed utterly in that regard; it is no exaggeration to consider Dublin a culinary destination) because the quality of the recipes is not at all bad. Many of them are simple, even austere, reflecting an accurate assessment by the authorities of what the straightened housewives of Ireland could afford at midcentury. Frugality is no longer prerequisite in a prosperous Ireland but even so All in the Cooking retains a considerable if eccentric appeal.

 

2. Sex and drugs and rock and roll… sort of.

Its authors--Nora Breathnach, Josephine Marnell, Anne Martin and Mor Murnaghan--do not embellish their recipes contextual narrative. The ghastly word ‘delicious’ does not appear, nor do the ladies otherwise promote their dishes. Their mission in an extraordinarily sexist state, where women were expected to remain perpetually pregnant and at home, was to teach Irish girls to cook nutritious food for their future families, nothing more.

To succeed in the task required more than treating their diners as bags to be filled with semi-edible fuel, even if expensive fripperies like flavor enhancers that otherwise should induce guilt (the Catholic Church is enshrined in the Irish constitution; the same may be said for the attitude of the midcentury republic to sexual pleasure) required rationalizing. Food

“ ….must be palatable--appetite is an essential factor for the secretion of the digestive juices, and therefore for the digestion and assimilation of the food, so that good cooking becomes an important condition for the maintenance of health. The use of various flavouring agents and condiments is therefore physiologically justified.” ( All in 230)

The authors’ science may be suspect but their humane sentiment, however equivocal they felt about it or thought their reader felt about it, was sound.

It is easy to imagine their students glowering with sullen resentment, not so much out of dislike for text or subject but with their circumscribed prospect. The attitude would have been understandable and regrettable. In the United States, no school teaches anyone to cook and it shows. Only Mexico suffers a higher rate of obesity, and health problems resulting from an industrialized diet of fast and prepared foods overladen with salt, sugars and cheap adjuncts and substitutes. The diet drawn from All in the Cooking is not that diet.

 

All-in-the-Cooking-cover.jpg An original, well used.

3. Irish antecedents.

Most of the recipes draw from traditional English (there is not much evidence of Scotland or Wales) rather than distinctly Irish foodways, for the sound reason that at the time there was little in the way of distinctive Irish foodways. And yet All in the Cooking could not have originated anywhere else.

How do we know? Small hints give away the game. In keeping with an exemplary Irish tradition, ham or bacon rolls always should accompany roast chicken, bacon rolls a boiled bird. The author’s good version of bread sauce may join them as well.

First among sauces listed, however, and first choice to sauce chicken or any other savory dish; “white pouring sauce,” essentially a roux thinned with milk and as much a constant of Irish kitchens as the potato. It also can become anchovy, caper, ‘Dutch,’ cheese, egg, mustard, onion or parsley sauce, but in terms of popularity a pitcher of plain is your only man.

The Irish national dish of boiled bacon appears, for service with browned bread crumbs, cabbage and, yes, white pouring sauce. A cook might add champ or colcannon to the bacon, and All in the Cooking would tell her how.

Seven variations on soda bread, all of them authentic and good, help seal the Irish deal. The simple technique is one of the best of all breads on the planet.

The best of all indicators in terms of Irish character on the savory side other than the bacon and cabbage and the soda breads may be spiced beef. Whether or not the dish, traditionally cured for Christmas, is of Irish origin, it very nearly has died away in England, where it only may be purchased in a very few places and only during the holiday season if at all. As Jane Grigson noted in 1974, spiced beef “is still to be found regularly on sale in Ireland.” (Grigson 184) All in the Cooking reflects that ready availability. Whereas Mrs. Grigson provides instruction for curing fresh beef, the Irish textbook, its emphasis on basic technique intact despite the omission, does not. Its recipe shows how to cook the spiced beef you have bought, not how to spice the beef yourself.

A sceptic may consider the absence of a cure from All in the Cooking an omission instead of an indication of ubiquity, but the book makes a lot of assumptions about what an Irish person might know. One of those assumptions entails spiced beef. All in the Cooking does not describe spiced beef as a Christmas dish, or describe it at all, but does instruct the cook to “garnish with a sprig of holly,” nothing anyone would consider other than at yuletide. ( All in 83)

Whether you buy spiced beef or cure it yourself, and in the United States it is certain you must cure it yourself, it is an exemplary thing worthy of revival, as alluring in its way as a New York cousin, pastrami.

Barm Brack, authentic Irish icon and utter delight, appears, a radiant combination of “flavouring agents” that is sensually as well as “physiologically justified.” “Carrageen Mould” is equally authentic to Ireland, if more acquired taste than icon, but to give the backhanded endorsement, it is nothing to be despised.

 

4. Irish anomalies.

Emer O’Toole, a sort of intellectual whose strategy for celebrity entails flaunting armpit fur, recently wrote a column in the Guardian in connection with the elevation to Taoiseach of a gay Indian immigrant’s, at age 38 also the republic’s youngest leader. “Left-leaning folk in Ireland,” she says

“are hoarse trying to explain to the faraways that, yes, we understand the optics--but this is Ireland, land of the topsy-turvy, where the election of a gay person of colour at the same time signals the entrenchment of anti-woman, anti-working-class austerity-as-usual.” (O’Toole)

The new Taoiseach, it transpires, is a cliché conservative who opposes reproductive rights for women and demonizes the poor by searching for nonexistent benefit fraud with his slogan “Welfare Cheats Cheat Us All.”

It should be no surprise that All in the Cooking, a government publication put out by the teetotal and prudish de Valera, would fail to mention alcohol (other than a measure for Christmas cake, that glimmer of subversive humanity again) or, in line with his autarkic obsession, would describe little or nothing not identified with Ireland itself. In the equally topsy-turvy confines of Irish cuisine, however, anomalies also accrue.

Regina Sexton, for instance, considered by conventional wisdom an authority on Irish foodways, equates sea pie with de Valera himself. She finds the name of the dish “curious” because it meets with approval in another cooking guide from the Irish government, a pamphlet from 1936. She therefore considers “DeValera’s Pie” the more accurate name, which is both ironic and ridiculous. The preparation originated in the Royal Navy centuries before the birth of de Valera and got its name because it was made from ships’ stores of preserved food including corned beef, salt pork and hardtack.

 

5. La dolce vita.

As for All in the Cooking itself, the absence of the ‘foreign,’ or perhaps rather nonBritish, element is undermined, but only a little, by an authentic trace of Italy. There is a recipe for boiling spaghetti with no instruction for saucing it, but nothing else Italian--other than three serviceable recipes for risotto that even require short grain rice. That in itself is remarkable: Arborio and risotto had hardly reached the United States by 1946.

However much de Valera succeeded in isolating Ireland from the rest of the world, the new republic could not ignore the outside altogether. Notions, however misguided, of French food infiltrated Irish kitchens as they did elsewhere, so the authors of All in the Cooking found it necessary to include an “Explanation of French Terms used in Cookery.” ( All in 231-32)

These terms might get an eccentric--topsy turvy?--Irish twist. Elsewhere, for example cassolet refers either to a small cooking dish or, outside the kitchen, to, speaking again of sex, the scent of a woman in a most intimate sense. All in the Cooking considers it “a small case made of potato puree for holding mince, etc.,” a culinary contraption any French person would have found fraught. ( All in 231)

The elephant in the Irish kitchen is underrepresented by All in the Cooking , which includes only about two dozen recipes, including soups, involving the potato. The elephant in the Dublin kitchen, coddle, gets no mention at all, but then coddle, as Roddy Doyle has observed of Flann O’Brien is not Irish, but Dublin. Not even Darina Allen, the celebrated proprietor of the Ballymaloe cooking school, had heard of the dish until middle age, when she felt a need to go ‘in search of’ it in connection with one of her books.

If you want to go in search of a confounding Ireland in an oddly heroic phase, a time when O’Brien, his many aliases and friends confounded the censors, and held forth on all things significant and silly in the storied public houses of Dublin, you should include All in the Cooking among your maps.

 

Sources:

Nora Breathnach et al., All in the Cooking (facsimile, Dublin 2015; orig. publ. 1946)

Emer O’Toole, “I’m glad a gay man of colour will be Irish prime minister, even if I abhor his politics,” the Guardian (4 June 2017)

Regina Sexton, A Little Book of Irish Food (London 1998)