What exactly is “Irish food”, anyways? Growing up Irish-American in the States, I heard this question a lot from friends, usually around St. Patrick’s Day each year. And, in fairness, I never really knew how to answer: soda bread, stew, some cheddar cheese maybe? Since managing to feed myself figured to be one of my first orders of business after arriving in Dublin, I hoped to finally develop a more sophisticated answer this year.
So far I have found the food scene in Dublin to be rather enjoyably complex, both for epicurean and intellectual reasons. As an aspiring technologist, I think a lot about how progress in technology has transformed the human condition. While I recognize that this is a complex question that is loaded with nuance, I think that – for the most part – it has made our lives better. That being said, it seems ironic that as modern information technology has enabled some of us to satisfy our higher needs for learning and for social connection more easily than ever before, environmental degradation threatens our most basic needs for clean air, clean water, and secure access to food.
I was interested, then, to learn that some in Ireland aspire for the island become entirely self-sufficient in terms of food production. I probably should have been less surprised – Ireland knows perhaps better than any country how food security can change the fortunes of a people. I’ve been visiting the Temple Bar food market in Dublin most Saturdays since I’ve been Ireland, and noticed some advertisements for the campaign in an early visit. The market is quite a cross-section of local flavors: everything local cheesemongers to Mediterranean produce from The Real Olive Company (the red pepper hummus is great!) to horse steaks on offer from Paddy Jack’s. I haven’t yet found the stomach for a horse steak, and don’t know that I will – I have recently been trying to adopt a rule of thumb in which, if I wouldn’t be willing to kill an animal myself, then I shouldn’t eat it. In theory that translates more or less to not eating any mammals, though in practice I am not the most disciplined about it (good bacon is tough to resist…).
In general, though, I feel more comfortable eating meat in Ireland than I do in the States. My major moral objection to eating meat is a concern about the quality of life experienced by the livestock rather than an objection to consuming meat itself. And, at least to my casual observation, factory farming does not seem to have consumed the agricultural sector here, and it is much easier to find meat that is locally sourced and grass-fed. Still, I have tried stick to vegetarian fare (the paneer dish at Govinda’s is great) or to chicken when possible (the chicken shawarma at Iskanders is another favorite). And most shops are quite eager to advertise when their food is “100% Irish” – though I would be curious to know what exactly qualifies them for that label (e.g., is beef from cattle raised in Ireland but fed on American corn “100% Irish”).
After two months in Dublin, I’m still not exactly sure what counts as “Irish food”. But I have found food to be quite an interesting thing to think about here (and not just when my stomach is rumbling).