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“At Our Potatoes”: Recipes for Normality in Post-Union Ireland

From: Éire-Ireland
Volume 48, Issue 3&4, Fall/Winter 2013
pp. 49-78 | 10.1353/eir.2013.0027

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This essay explores how taste—in the very obvious sense of the actual flavor of food, but also as a mode of conceptual and aesthetic discrimination—was broadly associated in post-Union Ireland with republicanism and nationalism. The development of taste in regard to diet among the poor—specifically the preference for one kind of food over another—was understood to be a version, and a very worrying one indeed, of the gastronomy that was increasingly a feature of life not only in Paris, the capital of haute cuisine, but also throughout rural as well as urban Britain and Ireland. A gastronomic culture had expanded in the period of the French Revolution and its aftermath, developing conditions in which food acquired particular political and even existential meanings. The habits of the Irish rural poor were caught up in this culture in striking ways, democratization making itself felt not only in the sphere of ideas but also in gustatory preferences.

Anxieties regarding the development of taste amongst the rural poor, however, are expressed in the improvement fiction of Mary Leadbeater and Abigail Roberts, whose early nineteenth-century tracts were, in almost all cases, published in Ireland and widely circulated as chapbooks and pamphlets, comprising one of the most significant literary genres of the immediate post-Union period. This fiction was even used to teach reading in various schools throughout Ireland until the foundation of the national schools in 1831. Leadbeater and Roberts’s tracts, as distinct from the critically explored genre of the post-Union national tale, were more mainstream in their day than their current obscurity would indicate. The discourse about Irish food presented in them—particularly that surrounding potatoes and edible commodities—owes much to Arthur Young’s writing on diet and agriculture. Catherine Gallagher observes that for Young “the potato is the bit of matter that promises … a new material order, a secular transubstantiation in which the human body is no longer experienced as needy and hungry, and is hence no longer riotous and unpredictable.” Indeed in his A Tour in Ireland (1780), the phrase “belly-full” approvingly describes the effects of consumption on those who subsisted largely upon potatoes. Young’s faith in the potato is fully sustained within the improvement tracts this essay explores.

Improvement writers committed themselves to the reform of Irish life in its most rural and material of manifestations, from agricultural techniques to the cooking and consumption of food. Both Leadbeater and Roberts feared that the rising popularity of tea and white bread, as well as an accompanying development of a taste for more provocative flavors, might even displace the central role of the potato in the meals of the rural poor. For them such a change would entail not only a disruption of a traditional diet, but also of the social harmony supposedly integral to it, revealing their anxiety about the encroachment of taste as a category into rural Ireland. For early nineteenth-century tract writers, in other words, taste constituted a direct threat to the material order of improvement, which sought to protect against contingency and disruption both in society at large and in ordinary daily domestic experience.

Although Gallagher’s “The Potato in the Materialist Imagination,” explores Arthur Young, William Cobbett and Thomas Malthus’s ideas about the potato, her essay does not address the anxious dietary discourse generated by didactic tracts that turned to the eating habits of the Irish poor. But Gallagher’s historicization of the potato debate establishes an invaluable critical context for explorations of food and hunger in the body of Irish writing discussed here. Often structured as fictional dialogues, such writing emphasized domestic order, thrift, and hard work. Distributed as pamphlets throughout rural Ireland, these tracts explicitly attempted to reform agricultural practices and home management. However, improvement writers faced difficulties as they encouraged new agricultural practices such as fencing and enclosures that suited an increasingly industrialized agriculture and that were also deemed necessary to meet increased demand for produce both before and throughout the Napoleonic Wars. Such practices frequently met with violent reaction in a traditional rural society and boosted membership in secret societies like the Whiteboys and Ribbonmen. Following the 1798 Rebellion and amid...

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