Why is this? Food is a significant part of every other celebration in this country, Hallmark-afflicted, or otherwise. The national holidays of Christmas and Thanksgiving are much about food. Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day are typically centered about a meal, often at a restaurant. Every ethnic festival prominently features food of that culture such as Chinese New Year, and probably most notably, the saint’s day festivals at Italian-American churches such as the Feast of St. Joseph on March 19. Even at another famous drink-centered event, Oktoberfest, one invariably also thinks of pretzels, sauerkraut and sausage – and maybe even pig's knuckles – along with the beer.
Curious about this, I came across Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration by Hasia R. Diner (Harvard University Press, 2002). She contrasts the Irish with two other large European immigrant groups, the Jews of eastern Europe and Italians, both of which celebrated food as a central part of the life they were crafting in America; the Jews more for religious reasons, the Italians, for cultural.
The Irish were fully subjugated by the English in the early 17th century. By the early 19th century, Diner explains that, “the subordination of Ireland’s economy to English markets went hand-in-hand with the constriction of Irish foodways. This elevated the potato from one food among many to the universal foodstuff of most.” The typical Irish family at that time “needed only a pot on the fireplace to boil potatoes, but were ill-equipped to prepare anything else.” What culinary aptitude that had existed had been lost, as “potato preparation demanded little in the way of cooking, cooking skill”, “nor produced cooking virtuosity.”
Furthermore, the vast Irish poor, Catholic in contrast to the Protestant landowners, “had few venues for learning what the rich folks ate [unlike the poor in Italy with their custom of religious feasts], and few reasons to eat like the alien in their midst.” The vast majority Irish did not know food, other than the sustenance provided by the potato and maybe a little about cabbages and onions. “Alcohol provided calories, and Irish immigrants brought with them a tradition of using alcohol as a food substitute.”
These Irish who began to come to this country in large numbers when the potato crops began to fail in the mid-19th century came with virtually no cultural attachments to food, very different than almost every other group, including the African slaves, who are able to recreate some of the dishes from their homelands. Diner continues that “the Irish in America did not use food to celebrate Irishness.” What we know of Irish food products like bacon, butter and cheese – with the exception of Guinness and whiskey brands – date largely from after the start of the Irish Free State the 1920s. “Alcohol, rather than food, played an integral role in the Irish social system.”
Part of the result of this lamentable history is that the Irish bar has become an enjoyable symbol of Irish and Irish-American culture – and a focal point for a March 17 revelry each year – with food just as a sidebar.
An earlier version of this article initially appeared in the Galveston Daily News.