What's the Deal with Irish Food?

Shepherd's-Pie.jpg
There's more to Irish food than just potatoes and shepherd's pie.
​Irish food gets a bad rap. Most Americans simply think of it as boiled-to-death meat served with overly starchy potato dishes, thanks to the plethora of bland Irish pub food that exists in the United States.

English fare gets the same bad rap, mostly due to the greasy bangers and mash that are so pervasive at Americanized British pubs. (And shame on a certain British pub in Idaho for showing NASCAR in the lounge one afternoon and refusing my repeated requests to turn the channel to a pivotal English Premier League soccer match.)

Anyway, back to Irish food. To understand Irish cuisine, it's important to understand the history of the land itself. Like in most cultures, Ireland has a strong agrarian history, dating back to the 7th century when monks first documented agricultural and foraging practices in voluminous secular texts. The potato wasn't even buried beneath the verdant landscape at that time. Staples of the early Irish diet included barley, oats, wheat and rye, most of which came in the form of sloppy porridge (gruel, if you will) and, on special occasions, flatbreads and cakes.

In the early days, people relied on hunting and foraging to help supplement a grain-heavy peasant diet. Indigenous foodstuffs such as venison, wild boar, nuts, greens and berries filled the gaps. But you don't hear much talk about these ingredients--everything leads to the potato when Americans converse about Irish food.

The upper-class (anyone who owned a cow or two) enjoyed dairy products and various domesticated meats. Mutton (old lamb) was the preferred animal protein, though, which was often made into hearty stews. Salted bacon was widely available, as well. Beef wasn't generally eaten back then, because that would have required people to butcher their prized dairy cows.

Ireland has a long history of cheesemaking, a tradition that's still going strong in dear, old Erin. Of course, early Irish cheeses in no way resembled what Americans try to pass off as cheese in modern times. (You know what I'm talking about; that oily, processed crap that is actually called "American" cheese.)

Irish cheeses, even today, are rustic creations made with time-honored traditions; some of the hard and semi-hard cheeses are aged in caves. Thankfully, an artisanal, farmstead cheese movement is taking hold in America. But in Ireland, the making of farmstead cheese is not a trend--it has just become a multi-million dollar export in the new millennium. Hell, you can currently buy Irish cave-aged cheese at Costco. But I doubt you'll find shepherd's pie there. I could be wrong, though.

Now, let's talk root vegetables. There's much contention about when the potato was introduced to Ireland as an agricultural crop. Many historians believe that it first came to County Cork in the late-16th century, via Sir Walter Raleigh, who brought the tubers to Ireland from Virginia. At any rate, there's no doubt that potatoes became a mainstay in the Irish diet at this point. Most of the country's farmers had widely planted this root vegetable by the end of the 17th century. But with single-crop cultures come big problems. Unfortunately, the potato was susceptible to a certain fungus that was known for wiping out entire crops. This blight, which took hold in the late-1840s, turned most of Ireland's potatoes black by 1850, causing about a million people to starve to death, and another million folks fled the country. Ellis Island (in New York City) became a busy place by the middle of the 19th century because of the mass exodus. This disastrous famine forever tied the Irish people to this starchy vegetable, whether they liked it or not.

With that said, Americans today associate Irish cuisine with spuds. People will soon file into Irish pubs on St. Paddy's Day, requesting potato dishes such as shepherd's pie, boxty bread and colcannon, a rustic dish that consists of boiled potatoes, cabbage and onions, thickened with butter.

Many folks in the U.S. will also be asking for corned beef and cabbage, which is actually a dish with strong English roots. Yet it's true that the Irish adopted this dish as their own, often serving it with boiled spuds during the holidays. It became even more popular among Irish immigrants living on the East Coast of America, especially ones that relocated to the Boston area, who made this form of New England boil part of their constant diet.

Things have definitely changed in the realm of Irish food in the 21st century, with lots of gastro pubs opening up in Dublin and in other Irish cities. The term gastro pub implies that the food is just as good, if not better, than the beer that flows from the taps, which is generally Guinness Stout, Smithwick's Red Ale and Harp Lager. In these kinds of places, diners can now get a taste of a more creatively executed Irish fare that uses contemporary concepts, mixed with Old World ingredients.

One such place is the Ely Hq Gastro Pub, located in Dublin's Grand Canal Square. This contemporary pub specializes in seasonal menus that employ foodstuffs sourced from local farmers, many of which are now organic. Expect to find dishes such as roasted rack of lamb, phyllo-wrapped goat cheese with micro-greens and a tian of smoked trout with celeriac remoulade. It's safe to say that this is not your great-grandmother's Irish cuisine.

You don't have to travel to Ireland to get a taste of contemporary Irish fare, though. For example, there are several upscale gastro pubs in New York City that dish up Irish and English-inspired food. The Spotted Pig, in Greenwich Village, artfully delineates the cuisines of Great Britain in a modern manner. Try the porcini vegetable stew, smoked haddock chowder or braised pork belly with barley risotto. Dishes like these will soon have you forgetting about starchy shepherd's pie and salty corned beef and cabbage.

With St. Patrick's Day fast approaching, Americans will undoubtedly be lining up to quaff yucky green beer and to eat a boring array of expected Irish dishes. But do yourselves a favor and seek out this more exciting Irish cuisine that exists in the New World. It will most certainly change your perspective about Irish food.