I finally managed to get a copy of this book and I’m so excited by it. I’ve been reading about the hungry month of July, as well as Lúnasa traditions, and I obviously will be reading the rest of the book as well, but it’s just such a lovely book and really easy to read.
I’ve seen copies going for €2-300, which is a bit beyond my price range, even for a book like this, but I found a copy for €59 (including postage) from Carmarthaen Books (well I found them on abebooks.com, which is a great website for finding older books) and it arrived earlier this week and I’m having a great time reading through it.
I know, it’s a short post, but I had to share my excitement with ye all! I love reading the old traditions and then think through how these traditions would/wouldn’t work today. For example, July isn’t really a hungry month anymore for most of Ireland – or at least no more hungry than all the other months of the year. We have a consistent food supply (as long as you have the resources to buy said food, which is not yet, unfortunately, a given) so I never heard of burning the straw from the corn instead of threshing it. We don’t, thankfully, survive on spuds and dairy any more either, so we have options when it comes to food.
But it also got me thinking that the abundance of food we eat tends to lead us to take it for granted, in ways that those who grow their own food and depend on that food can’t. We’ve separated the reality of growing food, whether plant or animal, from the eating of the food. The majority of people wandering around the supermarket on a Thursday night don’t really understand, at a bone deep level, what it takes to grow a calf from birth to death to turn it into meat. Or even to mind the cow so she can produce another calf in time. Or the pain and loss of losing a lamb or ewe at 3am on a wild night (or even at 3pm on a sunny day – the loss is no less, even if the surroundings are marginally more pleasant!) The backbreaking work of weeding a long, long line of spuds, hoping the worm doesn’t come up, or the birds don’t peck the new seedlings or any of the other various means by which a crop can be ruined or less than it should be.
And it got me thinking as well, that I am able to express preferences in food that my grandparents, or even my parents, were never able to. In the space of a single generation in Ireland we’ve gone from managing food carefully to last the cycle of the year, to food being readily available on supermarket shelves almost always. Our expectations of food are shown in the way we expect formerly exotic foods like tomatoes on a daily basis, with no understanding of the distances the tomato has travelled to get to us, or the energy required in growing it in Ireland. Avocados – once a staple in Mexico, if I understand correctly – is now too expensive for locals to eat, because foreigners, in our supermarkets, are willing to pay well beyond what those locals can pay. I think this would be similar to the spud being too expensive for the Irish to buy – although the price of spuds is rising consistently as well…
And we must remember that the spud isn’t of course native to our land, but it was so easy (relatively speaking) to grow, and you get so much return for your effort (again, relatively speaking) in terms of nutrition and calories, that it was adopted as families grew larger, land lots grew smaller and more was needed from less soil. So what did people eat before the spud? Apparently dairy. A lot of dairy. It’s well worth reading up on, if you get the chance, or I might do another blog post on it, if people are interested, but there are reports that dairy, milk, cream, cheese were hugely important. (Well most of our big sagas are around cattle, so it stands to reason really!) Oats were the usual grain, wheat being a bit difficult to grow in our climate. For fruit and veg: well the national obsession with bacon and cabbage was come by honestly, apparently, for cabbage, parsnip, onion and garlic were common enough, as were berries (seriously, even today, you can get a fair crop of berries around the island from wild sources) Seaweed for those living along the coast, of course, as well as fish from coast and river. So, y’know, actually a fairly comprehensive diet pre-spud.
But I haven’t come to that in Kevin Danaher’s book yet and I think he’s looking at post-spud introduction anyway, so it’s going to be interesting to see how often food is mentioned throughout the book. And even the small bit I’ve read, of the hungry month of July, is enough to have me considering what I eat and how I appreciate it.