Guest Author - Mary Ellen Sweeney
Here or there, it doesn't matter. Fatness was and is looked upon with terrific disdain in Irish families. Greediness is a sin, as is sloth, gluttony, envy, and all other roads that lead to chubby cheeks, plump bosoms, and a fat bum.
It induced terror in the hearts of the mothers of the girls they were raising. Having conquered their shared appetites long enough to say "I was slim when I met your Daddy. He would never have looked at me twice otherwise," an empathetic mother could lose confidence in her own skills and beliefs about what constitutes a healthful diet. The fat person must somehow be induced to become "normal." And the obesity industry will offer endless solutions. Reduced-, low-, or -free food, anyone?
This article in the NYT, The Fat Trap is very clear about some of the dilemmas involved with raising children and eating.
What happens when parents raise their children under ideal conditions with a pantry full of healthful foods and still the kids rebel and gorge themselves on "junque food?" Not merely a slap, but if you're Irish, perhaps also a tendency to blame yourself for their defection, creating vicious cycle that can cause the situation to stray very far off course and to no good end.
There is terrible pressure from within the Irish family to reduce the problem. After some years of rejoicing that children survive birth and infancy, suddenly there is an awareness of a "problem." When the happy, adored, roly-poly baby becomes a spoiled child, fat and demanding, counter-efforts can be extreme. The Irish solution is often what is called "slagging." Teasing, rarely gentle, never polite, and often barbaric. Conformity via torture? Where did the Irish pick that one up?
In the Irish culture "after the war," (pick a war, any war, and if it was in Europe, the Irish surely starved) self-denial was looked upon as one of the greatest of virtues. Between "giving it up for Lent" and "offering it up for the missions," the message was very clear that abstemiousness was to be admired. Under conditions of cruel poverty, this makes sense. Anyone who looks with lust on the last potato is a threat indeed.
The children of those Irish who made it to prosperity could easily develop distorted palates. The overwhelming need of immigrants' children to fit into a new society doesn't mesh well with carrying odd-looking foods to school. A peek at the lunchbox next to you doesn't look even remotely like yours. Twinkies??? The humble foods that built the Irish people during the long history of deprivation are thus to be avoided: potatoes, brown bread, root vegetables, cabbages, and the like for most days, and when they were lucky enough, the products of henhouse, dairy, piggery, and the waters. Berries, in season, and the rare tree fruits, and tea. All of these things are good foods for the Irish people, in moderation, and with good humor. Chocolates seemed to show up as well, and custards, and nice things, but never as much as are regularly consumed by even small children, perhaps daily, in the here and there now.
When all else fails, looking backward can indeed be a very, very forward-thinking thing to do. Slainte!