A century and a half after the Great Famine brought starvation and death to perhaps a million Irish people, and forced a similar number to emigrate, the Irish are, ironically, perhaps the best-fed nation in the world.
The average Irishman now consumes between 3,000 and 3,500 calories a day -- more than the average citizen of any other nation. Among more than 100 countries surveyed, Ireland ranked tenth in per capita meat consumption, sixth in daily protein consumption and seventh in milk consumption.
Irish meals are not only substantial, they're frequent. From waking, when a cup of tea is the rule, until bedtime, many families consume as many as six meals or snacks.
Irish breakfasts are famous for their size and quality. They are also more leisurely than their American counterpart. Hot cereal, usually porridge or stirabout (oatmeal), is the usual starter, perhaps with milk, which in country homes may be straight from the cow and still warm.
Monica Sheridan, who has written one of the best Irish cookbooks notes that the little boys in her family had little use for porridge, but would eat it ".....so they would have the strength and stamina to be good footballers."
Then come eggs -- freshly laid -- and slices of lean Irish bacon, which many consider the finest in the world. Finally, there's fresh bread, thickly sliced and slathered with butter and marmalade or other jam. To wash things down, there's tea, which is excellent in Ireland -- or coffee, which is improving but still not up to the standards Americans are used to.
About 11a.m., most people will take a break for a bit of pastry with coffee or tea. The day's main meal, dinner is typically eaten around one in the afternoon, especially in the country, where the menfolk have been working up an appetite in the fields. Though people who work in Dublin, Cork, Belfast and other major cities are turning more to pubs and restaurants for their midday meal, most people still head for home, where a six-course affair is not uncommon.
At dinner, the centerpiece may be roast beef, steak, roast pork, ham (especially Limerick ham), lamb chops, mutton or road baby lam, or it may feature Irish stew, corned beef and carrots, boiled bacon and cabbage, or black or white meat pudding (an acquired taste for most).
You may find fish or other seafood -- perhaps supurb trout or salmon from Ireland's rivers and streams, or, less often, shellfish. What you won't find is corned beef and cabbage. While considered quintessentially Irish fare in the United States, this combinations is virtually unknown in Ireland, though bacon and cabbage is a popular dish.
No Irish dinner would be complete without potatoes in some form. In fact, it's not considered odd to serve as many as four potato dishes at the same meal. Irish potatoes are a lot tastier, to begin with, than those grown elsewhere -- or so, at least, many Irish people are convinces. And Irish cooks have invented countless ways to prepare the nutritious tuber since it was first brought from the New World by Sir Walter Raleigh in the late 1500s.
Monica Sheridan recalls some of the picturesque names under which Irish potatoes have been marked: Golden Wonders, Ulster Chieftains, Aran Banners, irish Queens, Dunbar Rovers, Skerry Champios, and so on -- rather reminiscent of athletic team names.
Colcannon -- potatoes cooked with cabbage, onions, cream and butter -- is among the most popular of choices. So, too, is champ -- potatoes mashed with milk, to which chives, peas or parsley may be added for variety. Other traditional potato dishes include potato cakes, cooked on a griddle, potato soup, potato flounces, a pie of layered potatoes and onions; and boxty, a bread of sorts made from raw potatoes, mashed potatoes, whole wheat flour, butter and bacon grease, which are kneaded, rolled and baked until golden brown.
As far as many people are concerned, though, nothing can beat a plain Irish potato, boiled or roasted in its skin and served with a generous dollop of butter. This often forms a course by itself.
Freshly baked bread will also be on the table. It may be soda bread, which has been leavened with baking soda, not yeast, and which may or may not contain carraway seeds, currants and other additions. Or, perhaps, brown bread, made with stone-ground whole-wheat flour. Irish cooks are proud of their baking stills, and Irish breadmaking is one of the gerat traditions in Irish cooking. A good housewife, according to Sheridan, "wouldn't dream of offering a visitor" anything less than three distinct types of her own bread, various scones, and two or three cakes -- all baked esecially for the occasion.
Like other people thoughout the British Isles, the Irish seem to be born with well-developed sweet tooths. Plum puddings, trifle, sultana (seedless yellow raisin) cake and apple tarts are among the most popular desserts.
Strong, sweet tea is served with most meals, but milk and buttermilk are drunk as well. For every cup of coffee they drink, the Irish consume three or four cups of tea. Wine is still not an everyday drink for many, though as more Irish people travael abroad on business or on vacation, wine and other Continental touches are becoming more popular among some parts of the population.
There are a number of dishes that are local specialties -- and perhaps an acquired taste even where they are served. Drisheens, a County Cork specialty, are made by combining strained sheep's blood with milk, water, mutton suet, breadcrumbs and seasonings. Boiled crubeens are also chiefly a Cork dish. They're the hind trotters of a pig, which have succulent meat hidden between the bones.
Dublin coddle is a meat stew, made primarily of Irish sausage, bacon, onions and potatoes. It is virtually unknown outside the capital, and even there is eaten mainly by families that have lived in Dublin for many generations. Dean (Jonathan) Swift ate Dublin coddle in the 18th century; today it is served particularly on Saturday nights after the menfolk have returned from the pub.
Few people would describe typical Irish fare as haute cuisine. Given the quality and freshness of the mean, dairy products and vegetables the Irish countryside yields, there's little need for fancy sauces, seasonings and cooking methods. Irish cuisine, as one authority has put it, is simply "good, honest food."
Some claim that good conversation and good company -- not the food itself -- are the elements that make an Irish meal memorable. Yet Irish food is good -- indeed, has long been outstanding in some of its aspects -- and it seems, on the whole, to be getting even better.