The future for Irish food history

Dorothy Cashman

Posted: 8 November, 2017

Dr Dorothy Cashman is an independent researcher currently working on the history of the recipe in Ireland. She is also a member of the organising committee of the Dublin Gastronomy Symposium. She joins us this month to talk about the future for Irish food history. 

My work on manuscripts and cookbooks is one aspect of current research into Irish food history. Contested identity and the shadow that hunger and famine cast are long, but Irish food historians are now making the argument through their research that this history must accommodate feast as well as famine.

We are drawing to the end of Kavanagh’s ‘Mystical Autumn’, and food is indeed a rich theme for the month of October. I started my research into culinary history with a master’s dissertation on the history of Irish cookbooks. These texts are fascinating historical sources, described by the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai as the ‘humble literature of complex civilisations’. The food historian Barbara Wheaton has developed a framework to analyse historic cookbooks and I attended her fascinating seminar at the Schlesinger Library, Harvard, a seminar that she conducts once a year.

With one or two notable exceptions, Irish authored cookbooks did not go to print until the turn of the twentieth century, finding their voice in the context of the emergence of the Irish State. While there are many historical sources regarding food on the island, references to recipes are rare and the single most important repository of these recipes are the culinary manuscripts compiled and collected by the gentry in Ireland from the mid-seventeenth century. My doctoral dissertation traced the history of these collections within the wider European context, studying in detail one particular manuscript compiled in 1810 by Mrs Baker of Ballaghtobin House, near Callan in Co Kilkenny. This narrative operates on the level of the individual but also at the level of how the recipes collected by Mrs Baker and other members of the gentry contribute to Irish culinary history.

My research demonstrates one aspect of ongoing scholarship in the field of Irish food history. Doctoral theses in progress through the Dublin Institute of Technology under Dr Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire, chef and food historian, are exploring topics as diverse as the social meaning of claret in Georgian Ireland, and how the Irish state has entertained its official guests through the food and beverages served at state banquets and receptions since the signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty. The emergence of a cohort of scholars, trained as chefs and bringing this lived experience to academia through doctoral research in areas as diverse as analysing the absence of female head chefs in kitchens, and the creation of a framework of critical success factors for independent Irish restaurants, is particularly exciting.

The Irish are alive to enjoyment of and discussion surrounding the complexities of our relationship with food, whether this relationship is defined geographically or socially. The experience of food is a lived experience, reflected in the diverse contributions to and attendance at the Dublin Gastronomy Symposium, a biennial convivial gathering of chefs, food historians, culinarians, food writers, educators and general ‘foodies’.

As a researcher and culinary historian, this is indeed a rewarding time to be contributing to the explosion of interest in all things relating to food on this island.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in our guest blogs are the author’s own, and do not reflect the opinions of the Irish Research Council or any employee thereof.