My children, aged 9 and 7 at the time, were enchanted by the wooly sheep and languid cows that slowed traffic on country lanes and brushed by our car close enough to touch. My husband developed an insatiable appetite for the golf courses of the west of Ireland — Ballybunion, Lahinch, Waterville — and for pints of Guinness at pubs named Donahoe’s, McCarthy’s, and Hennessy’s. We all treasured Ireland for reasons of our own, but none of us thought much about the food, except breakfast, perhaps, when we would sit down with total strangers and be fussed over about how we wanted our eggs cooked, and did we want a bit of porridge to start, or did we need more toast and jam?
To be honest, when you travel to a foreign country with young children, you look more for golden arches than for Michelin stars, so our 1984 visit to Ireland was not exactly a gourmet tour. We ate simple foods like Irish stew, fish ‘n’ chips, and sandwiches made with thick slabs of ham and slices of Cheddar cheese, and we still came home raving about all things Irish. Serious food was irrelevant.
For years after that first trip, a day never passed when I didn’t think of Ireland. Thanks to my Irish-born grandmother, I eventually had my name registered in the Foreign Births Record and was issued an Irish passport. I’ve traveled there more than two dozen times in the last 15 years, and with each new visit I’ve grown to love Ireland more: the people, the landscape, the history, the folklore, the music, and, finally, the food.
Finally, the days of the bad jokes about Irish food are over, and the inert image of Irish cooking — its legacy of famine, emigration, wars, and the Troubles — is being eclipsed by a more modern, inspired, and cosmopolitan approach. Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, people are, at last, buzzing about a “new” Irish cuisine, a style of cooking that uses local ingredients and is based on traditional dishes, a script that Irish food writer Theodora FitzGibbons suggested nearly a half century ago when she wrote: “The best food of a country is the traditional food which has been tried and tested over the centuries. It’s food that suits the climate and uses the best products of that country. . . . It’s part of its history and civilization, and, ideally, the past and the present should be combined so that traditional food is not lost under a pile of tins or packages.”
Contemporary Irish chefs realized she was right. After all, no one could fault the basic ingredients of Irish cooking — some of the best beef, lamb, and pork in the world; fresh fish; incomparable dairy products; wild fruits and berries; vegetables, especially the potato, the country’s great staple — but they had to learn to broaden their tastes and apply more sophisticated, international cooking techniques to the marvelous bounty of their homeland. Eventually, more and more chefs have come to embrace and develop this style of cooking, experiment with new dishes based on traditional foods, and serve them with touches from Asian, Mediterranean, even Latin American cuisines.
In a country that has become perhaps the most dynamic place in Europe, it comes as no surprise that food in Ireland has kept pace with these dynamics and has taken on a distinctive identity. The food of Ireland has indeed at last moved boldly into the new millennium, no longer, as James Joyce once wrote, “an outcast from life’s feast.”
For a new and improved St. Patrick’s Day meal, this year start with a smooth pat