Guest Author - Mary Ellen Sweeney
Darina Allen and the Ballymaloe Cookery School have put Irish cookery on the map, said "The New York Times" back in 2005 in "In Ireland, Cookery Amid the Greenery", and Darina has virtually single-handedly rescued the Irish sympathy for good, wholesome food. This comes as no surprise here; my mother would have been thrilled. If anything, there has been a terrific nostalgia for delicious Irish country cooking among those who remember it. Now the "NYT" has found Darina a good story in "Reclaiming Irelandís Culinary Heritage, One Roast Lamb or Sponge Cake at a Time".
The wags, authorities on Irish food the likes of Peter O'Toole, who described an Irish three-course meal as three pints of Guinness, and those who describe a seven-course Irish meal as six-pack and a potato have obviously only been exposed to post-war pub grub.
For starters (as they call appetizers in Ireland) and for the record, there was a great shortage of six-packs in our house growing up. Neither of the parents took "the wee drop", and the many stories surrounding alcohol in the O'Donnell house ran to more abstinence rather than excess, at least as far as the native-born Irish in residence were concerned. Generation One, maybe that's another story, but there is a huge population, the backbone of the country, who take spirits in moderation and appreciation. But, back to Darina and her methods of meeting the Earth.
Darina's belief that people should plant first, and then cook, is as genuine as it gets. These are the things that our Irish parents described growing up. One had only to visit a country cousin and a city cousin to get the lay of the land, if you'll pardon the pun. Much food at the country homes was home-grown (or local, for the most part), harvested, and cooked. The cousins living in towns---not even the city---laid a much different table. Read Colm Toibin's "Brooklyn" for a small taste of Irish small-town life after the war. The store-bought cakes only looked pretty.
Though the best was always laid out for visitors, the availability of fresh foods once you left the countryside was often very limited. So the "American-style" foods of the fifties, pulverized and packaged starches and flavorings destroyed the health of the Irish people as they had those in the States in the post-war boom. Now the children of Ireland are just as fat and unfit as they are throughout the United States. I know, I was one of them. It was not the Irish-style natural foods that were virtually the only foods in our home, it was "everything not served home," all of which were very attractive to children. Thanks to the secret donuts after school and the plethora of fast foods available, weight became a huge problem for me socially as a teenager, and ultimately healthwise as an adult.
Our father was a mean man with a tomato. Emigration to America gave him the opportunity to become a bit of a "gentleman farmer," for who else in Ireland could grow tomatoes like the Rutgers' "Jersey Beefsteak"? The grandparents, whom I knew very well, were even closer to the earth than either our parents or perhaps even Darina herself. I don't hear any mention of churning butter at home, a simple thing these days, now that there are kitchen mixers with transmissions rather than little electric motors.
Once upon a time, little girls grew strong arms on the wooden handle of the churn. The butter was made after the cream had risen to the top of the milk that the cows had donated into a scalded metal bucket first thing that morning. The lowing of a hungry, milk-filled cow is a mighty annoyance to anyone who would like to turn over for a few more winks. There'll be no winking when there are cattle lowing. After milking---which I never really got the hang of, other than a few awkward squirts that didn't do more than annoy the cow---the milk is poured through a clean cloth into a big jug. Then it was left to stand until the cream rose. This is the cream from which the butter was made.
The water for the kettle had been carried from the well a few yards down the road from the cottage...on the other side of the road from "the bog," which in Ireland can be the place where one finds turf, or it's the outhouse. The aforementioned bog was not where the turf was found.
The churn was scalded with boiling water from a kettle that was boiled on the turf-fired stove. The cream was poured into the churn, which in this case was an upright type, similar to this one, and after the top and handle were fitted on, the handle was pumped up and down in the churn. It was an eternity working the handle up and down in the churn until the butter started to come from the cream. I remember my grandmother, with her quick hands, snatching a bit of salt from a bowl and dashing it into separating cream. The tiny specks of butter separate from the watery buttermilk---not much like the pasteurized varieties found in modern supermarkets---and this is poured through a sieve to collect the butter. My grandmother's paddle shaped the butter in the bowl. Little droplets of water seep from the pores of the butter when it is later cut to butter the brown bread that my grandmother had made.
"This calls for a cup of tea," she sighs with that "aye" that is so Donegal, so sweet. There is a deep intake of breath before the 'A' in the "aye" that makes the word more than simple agreement. The empathy of the word is so deep that it includes oneness with all creatures, or "Poor wee creathurs," as Grandma would say of any being who suffered. So, job done, and suffering (a little, so) from drought and hunger, the salve is to cut the bread and pour the tea, and once again, all is right with the world. We sit in the afternoon sun, sipping and nibbling as we look out over the bay and see everything.
Follow the links for the "NYT" articles:
In Ireland, Cookery Amid the Greenery
Reclaiming Irelandís Culinary Heritage, One Roast Lamb or Sponge Cake at a Time