Food For Thought

Famine Food

By Lucy Madden.

It’s difficult to imagine, in this world of choices, a subsistence diet based on one foodstuff.  We have the privilege, although some might argue with the use of that word, to feed ourselves on a bewildering array of edible matter.  We can chew what we want, we can become locavores, frugavores, vegans, eat macrobiotic or go on the Jesus diet: all will be catered for.   In other words, we are spoilt for choice and this, of course,  makes the current famine in the east of Africa all the more shocking, yet it poses the question, is our reaction to that catastrophe so different to the indifference shown, largely from outside, to the victims of the Irish Potato Famine?

The four terrible years of famine in Ireland that were signalled by the detection of potato blight in September 1945 were preceded by a period where a large variety of food was available in the country.  Recently here in Co. Monaghan we were fortunate to be given a demonstration of this by a visit from a Belgian television company who are making an eight part series, De Patat, each a half hour and filmed in different countries, on the history of the potato.  Is it an act of penance that it should be the Belgians who show such an interest in our famine, since it has been claimed that they were responsible for bringing the fungus Phytophthora Infestans into mainland Europe?  Their programmes are fronted by an ebullient Belgian chef, Jeroen Meus, who had us spread out on a trestle table the foods available in pre-famine Ireland and the wealth of choice would not disgrace a Michelin starred restaurant today.  Besides the display of meat, game and poultry there was abundance from the seas, fish and shellfish, cultivated fruits and vegetables as well as wild plants, charlock, nettles, sorrel and dandelion.  This food, as we are aware, was only available to the rich and by the 1840s the poor were subsisting almost solely on a diet of potatoes.  When the crop failed, about seven-eighths of the people of Ireland had no immediate alternatives to which to turn.  What followed is well known, although a friend of ours asked to write a history of the famine found it difficult since so many victims died and those who lived had been reluctant or unable to chronicle their afflictions.  Much of the suffering must be left to the imagination.  But this disaster, the largest peacetime calamity in Europe since the Black Death, had been avoidable and those who stepped forward to help were small in number.  One of these has been called the first celebrity chef, Alexis Soyer, the French born and much esteemed head chef at the Reform Club in London who came over to Ireland to set up soup kitchens and provided his own recipe for a broth that was supposed to provide some nourishment, at little cost, to the starving of the country.  “We must cook this soup – to the kitchen!” Jeroen Meus announced waving a piece of paper on which were written the ingredients:     ‘ ¼ lb leg of beef, 2 gallons of water, 2 oz dripping, 2 onions and other vegetables, ½ lb of flour (seconds), ½ lb of pearl barley, 3 oz salt, ½ oz of brown sugar’.    Soyer had claimed that a meal of his soup once a day, together with a biscuit, was sufficient to sustain the strength of a strong healthy man.

Overlooking the preparation of the soup was local historian Brian McDonald who told us that this soup would not have been available to any man considered fit enough to work, nor would every member of a family necessarily qualify; in large families it had to be shared out.  Someone in the room (I think it was me) foolishly asked if there were potatoes in the soup?  We watched as a pot bubbled miserably on the stove;  there was no aroma from this concoction and its colour was grey.  When Jeroen pronounced that it was as ready as it was ever going to be, we sat and were each given a bowl.  As we dipped our spoons into this sustaining soup and took the first taste, one expression registered on every face, disgust.  This tasteless, pasty concoction was intended to keep people alive and healthy?  We agreed we could not imagine surviving for a week on it.

A few days later, and quite by chance, I came across a recipe prepared not long afterwards, around 1853, by Alexis Soyer called ‘Crimean Cup’.  It reads as follows: “Mix one quart syrup of orgeat, one pint of cognac brandy, a half-pint of maraschino, a quarter pint of Sunshine rum, three bottles of champagne, two bottles of soda water, three ounces of sugar, and the juice of four lemons.”   Then as now, the rich can gorge themselves while the poor die.  Plus ca change.