As I sit and write this during the global economic meltdown of October 2008, I admit to getting tired of listening to all the pundits predict that 2009 is going to be a humdinger of a financial challenge and families will have to cut back on just about everything that isn’t absolutely necessary. Why, I ask, is that not a good thing?
I am the child of parents who really did have it rough. Mom and Dad lived through the Great Depression of the 1930’s. They were lucky and had jobs (earning a whopping $11 per week), but millions of people were out of work and lost their homes. My grandparents had an even harder time. They were immigrants who came to this country with little more than the clothes on their backs. My great-grandparents had it tougher yet. They survived Europe’s agricultural blights and Famines of the 19th century. And if we continue to look back in history, the plight of the ordinary working person gets really ugly.
Compared to the hardships our forebears experienced, what’s going on now is a walk in the park. The real problem as I see it is that we have forgotten something our ancestors practiced religiously because their very lives depended on it. We have forgotten how to be thrifty.
This bit of Irish folk wisdom, “A penny in a poor man’s pocket is better than two pennies in a rich man’s pocket,” shows that we have always had respect for hard-earned coin of the realm. Another great proverb, and one of my family’s favorites, was: “Necessity is the mother of invention.” In times past, when money was tight, as it almost always was in homes of all but the landed gentry, the Irish were brilliant at finding creative ways to provide for not only the necessities, but also the little extras that made life just a wee bit more comfortable. The Aran islanders didn’t run out and buy new sweaters constantly. They knit them and devised a unique art form in the bargain. Irish countrywomen couldn’t afford expensive European lace, so they invented incredibly intricate crochet patterns to adorn their dresses. If a family didn’t already have a cradle that had been passed down from generation to generation, one was lovingly handcrafted for the new arrival.
Perhaps one of the most important places where thrift and creativity came into play was in the kitchen. Once potatoes were introduced to the Irish diet, the poorest people lived on a steady diet of spuds. Even earlier in history, oats had been the nutritional mainstay. Meat was a luxury. The family cow was a revered living food factory, giving nutritious milk some of which could be transformed into butter and cheese. Poultry produced eggs. If a family was lucky enough to own a pig, when it was slaughtered not a scrap was wasted, giving rise to the saying “Every part of a pig found its way to the table except the oink.” And all families – rich and poor alike – had a vegetable garden.
Granted, this scenario depicts the thousands of years when there were no corner supermarkets with aisle upon aisle of ready-to-eat packaged, canned and frozen food. But now that these vittles megamarts do exist, we are seduced into compromising on nutrition simply for the ease of preparation that pre-packaged foods offer. In many if not most cases, mass-manufactured food is chock full of scary substances such as fillers, preservatives, stabilizers, dyes, artificial chemical flavorings, and dangerously high levels of a whole range of sugars. In his introduction to Florence Irwin’s classic Irish cookbook, The Cookin’ Woman – Irish Country Recipes, writer and critic St. John Greer Ervine wrote: “Pigs are not particular, but even the most casual pig might turn up its snout at the food that is now commonly offered to civilized men and women.”
Canned spinach and instant mashed potatoes fall dismally short of the flavor punch found in fresh made Colcannon. No squishy factory-made bread can compare to the taste and texture of Irish Soda Bread. Frozen hash browns reheated to a gummy blob in a microwave can’t hold a candle to a wedge of pan-fried Fadge. And don’t even get me started on dehydrated scrambled eggs, or frozen pot pies that are all sauce and no chicken, or packaged cake mixes full of ingredients you can’t even pronounce.
Adding insult to actual potential physical injury, factory foods are much more expensive than the real thing! Let’s have a round of applause for the anonymous Irish cook who turned a few cents’ worth of onions, potatoes and sausages into a luscious Dublin Coddle. Or the genius who combined a bit of beef, a few carrots, some ubiquitous potatoes and onions, with a splash of ale and created Irish Stew. Who would not tip his hat to the kitchen wizard who simmered an inexpensive Corned Beef with Cabbage (and a few more potatoes) and created one of Ireland’s most famous dishes? These classic Irish recipes are not merely delicious. Each one will feed a crowd, literally, for pennies.
Irish cookin’ women of the past were experts at coaxing the ingredients of their meager pantries into wholesome, tasty meals, but it was in the dessert category where their brilliance really shined. First off, having dessert was not an everyday occurrence in the Irish working person’s household. Bread Pudding is made with scraps of stale bread, an egg or two, and some milk. Adding a few raisins or some grated apple was a clever way to minimize the need for using honey or sugar, both pricey luxuries, which if available, could better be combined with a little butter and Irish whiskey in a decadent sauce. An equally stunning special treat might be an Apple Crisp topped with buttery oats and walnut bits.
If you find yourself pinching pennies this year, consider this: Studies have shown that people were in general healthier during the strict rationing of World War II than they are today. Why? Because they ate real food. We could all benefit immensely – nutritionally and financially – from a little “back to the future” thinking in the kitchen. You might also learn how to knit. Sláinte!
NOTE: These recipes will feed 8 people at $2.00 per serving. Costs are approximate but close.
(Classic Irish Recipes – Georgina Campbell)
8 1⁄4-inch slices of ham ($2.50)
1 pound Irish sausages ($6.99)
2 pounds unpeeled red potatoes, quartered ($1.38)
4 large onions, sliced 1⁄4-inch thick ($.70)
4 heaping tablespoons freshly chopped parsley ($.30)
1 quart boiling water
salt and pepper (less than 1-cent)
Cut the ham into large chunks and cook with the sausages in the boiling water for 5 minutes. Drain but reserve the liquid. Put the meat into a large baking dish with the onions, potatoes and parsley. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and add enough reserved liquid to barely cover. Put a lid on the dish and bake in the oven at 250F for approximately 1 hour or until the liquid is reduced by half and all the ingredients are cooked but not mushy. Serve hot with fresh soda bread. Yields 8 servings at $1.48 per serving.
White Soda Bread
(Classic Irish Recipes – Georgina Campbell)
4 cups all-purpose flour ($.65)
1⁄2 teaspoon salt (less than 1-cent)
1 teaspoon baking soda ($.02)
1 cup buttermilk ($.25)
Preheat the oven to 425F. Mix the flour, salt and soda together in a bowl, then stir in the buttermilk and mix to a soft dough. Turn onto a floured worktop and knead quickly and lightly. Form the dough into a flat, round cake, about 2-inches high, and cut a deep cross in it to ensure that it cooks evenly. Put on a floured baking sheet and bake for 30-40 minutes or until well risen and lightly browned. Cool on a wire rack. Yields 8 servings at $.12 per serving.
6 large apples (3 red, 3 green), peeled, cored and cut in eighths ($1.60)
1 cup sugar ($.38)
teaspoon ground cloves (less than 1-cent)
1⁄2 teaspoon cinnamom (less than 1-cent)
juice of 1⁄2 lemon ($.20)
3⁄4 cup flour ($.13)
6 tablespoons butter, chilled ($.52)
1⁄4 cup chopped walnuts ($.37)
Preheat oven to 350F. Toss apples with 1/2 cup sugar, cloves, cinnamon and lemon juice, and place in a medium baking dish. Blend the remaining sugar, flour and butter to a crumbly consistency. Add the walnuts and sprinkle over the apple mixture. Bake 45 minutes, or until the apples are tender and the topping is lightly browned. Serve warm. Yields 8 servings at $.40 per serving.