The Food of Saints and Slavers: St. Patty’s Cuisine

Little Pádraig was sixteen when the ruffians fell upon him. They were slavers, from the wild island to the west. They smelled of salt and fish and sheep. Pádraig’s people made canoes that could be carried on the back, or rafts of wicker. But the slavers’ vessel was something else. Even in his terror, Pádraig marveled at their ship. It had space for two dozen men, barrels of food, and even places to sleep. It also had chains for youth snatched from the English coast. 

Over the next six years, Pádraig tended the slavers’ sheep. He was fortunate to be captive in a land of surpassing beauty. As the young slave-shepard roamed the rolling green with his flock, visions and prayer came often. At the age of twenty, he found the courage to flee. 

After two hundred miles of shivering under the stars and eating what he could find, Pádraig landed in a port town. Finding a ship, he convinced the captain to take him on board and away from the beautiful island that had been his prison for six years. 

The ship made landfall at a place unknown to the crew. Their journey inland quickly became a wilderness meander. Morale and supplies grew slim. A month later, and they were still in the wild. Pádraig urged the men to put their faith in God, as he had during his servitude; shortly thereafter, the men encountered a herd of wild boar, and gave thanks. The strange boy among them seemed to have the ear of God.

This was the unforgiving, often brutal milieu that gave us St. Patrick. (Perhaps. We are taking his word for it. Many scholars insist that this is Patrick’s own mythology, and he was simply a disaffected teen who fled England to avoid inheriting a job as a tax collector from his father.) Some 1500 years later, day-drunks young and old would stumble down the streets of Anytown, USA in emerald chintz, toasting his name. Imagine trying to explain such a thing to that boy lost in the English wilderness in the company of unsavory men. St. Patrick’s Day would become, like every other holiday, a day about having plenty of fun and plenty of food.

The Food of St. Patrick’s Era

The food of St. Patrick’s day is Irish, of course: corned beef, cabbage, and for many, plenty of stout. But the origins of this Irish cuisine we consume on St. Patrick’s day stand in stark contrast to what the man himself would have eaten.

For one thing, our young Pádraig’s family lived in Britain during the Roman Empire’s occupation, meaning that they were culturally more Roman than British, and nothing like contemporary “Irish.” (In fact, St. Patrick’s own family also owned slaves, probably.) His father was an agent of the Empire, as I mentioned above. As cultural Romans, they were enjoying the fruits (and vegetables) of Roman imperialism.

The Romans did a lot for British cuisine: along with conquest, they brought onions, garlic, leeks,cabbages, shallots, peas, celery, radishes, turnips, asparagus, rosemary, thyme, bay, basil, mint, walnuts, chestnuts, and many other comestibles. Many of these Roman introductions are considered quintessentially “British” today, but they were unknown in the isles before the uppity Empire showed up. Besides bringing these foods to Britain, Rome also taught the natives agriculture, so that their native apples, for instance, could flourish in orchards. Cattle, chickens, and rabbits also came along for the ride.

If Patrick was indeed a slave, he would have subsisted on oat gruels, muesli, and some wheat bread, with some game meat if it was available. After that phase of his life, though, his options would have opened up considerably.

British-Roman stores and restaurants had bacon, fermented fish sauce, wine, spices, boar kabobs…the culinary scene in 4th century Britain was more lively than you might think; the groundwork for modern Irish food has been in place for almost two thousand years.

So where do we get the modern St. Patty’s fare of beef, cabbage, and potatoes? (The booze is a broad matter, and justifies its own separate future entry.)

“Irish Food”

The potato was introduced to Ireland in the 1500s. As an extremely efficient, hearty crop, the potato found quick favor with the poor. It also produced a high yield, meaning that poor farmers could pay their land rent with the crop and still have something left to eat. Within decades, the potato had achieved staple status. That created major complications later, but the potato kept Ireland fed for many years, and became an intrinsic part of its history and culture.

Corned beef came along in earnest during the next century. Under English rule, cattle-rich Ireland exported plenty of beef. (The Cattle Acts of the 1660s prevented export of live cattle). Ireland was also salt-rich, and its salt tax was a fraction of England’s. For trade and military supply, many English used Ireland as a beef-production house. Fresh beef was salted for the long journey overseas, or for simple preservation. The crystals of salt used in preservation were as large as corn kernels—hence, “corned beef.” To this day, corned beef remains an Irish cultural export: Irish-Americans eat corned beef, but the Irish can usually be found eating ham and bacon on St. Patrick’s (or any other) day.

Cabbage, too, is nutrient-rich and resistant to the unfriendly growing climate of Ireland. Like the potato, it could provide enough for those locked in the feudal system to pay rent and eat in the same week. For these reasons, the cabbage never left.

Like many places, Ireland’s culinary history is bound up with slavery, famine, a brutal feudal system, and the vicissitudes of Nature itself. When you look at all those St. Patrick’s Day leftovers in the fridge, spare a thought for the staggering plight of those anonymous masses who built the only culinary tradition available to them. It’s all right to shake your head at the majesty and horror of the human experience, even if you’re wearing a glittering green top hat. The Irish are also known for their sense of humor.

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