Folk Culture: Preserving Irish Food Traditions
Folk culture can teach us much about life and this human voyage we’re all on. What it is to eat, drink, dress, sing, dance, die. The ultimate value of folk culture being that it teaches us about ourselves, through lessons from those whom are no longer here to show us directly.
Following in their path, we stand heir to everything they have bequeathed us. Each stitch in a daughter’s wedding dress, each traditional dish served up with love to a worn-out family. Every minuscule act has made a mark, added to this manual on how to live this human life we call ‘folk culture’.
The manual on how to live it well.
Folk Culture vs. Fad
The definition of folk culture includes the institutions that govern a population, the traditional ways and customs that guide their daily life, and the native dress, music, literature, dance and foods. It covers a wide range of areas, and for this reason alone can provide much guidance and wisdom.
From the perspective of our time, where an endless treadmill of fads flare up, flip and fizzle out, the value of folk culture is taking on even greater importance. For it represents the value of that which has endured throughout. Embodying the essence of a people, the essence of worth and wisdom.
Striking then that folk culture thrives best on the periphery, far from the main thrust of the age. Living in opposition to the bustling core, those places where never-ending obsession with ‘newness’ gradually sucks the marrow out of worth. Generalizing and homogenizing what a particular culture does differently, until, in practice, it is little.
There, in the core, the marketing pitch may still be one which speaks of itself as ‘real’, ‘authentic’ or ‘true’ (American, English, German, Japanese..). The words and the claims of difference continue. But everyday life is pretty much the same as in many other nations. Born in a neighboring country, or even one geographically far removed, you could probably still do what you do, eat what you eat, watch what you watch.
But in the periphery, things are different.
Folk Culture Examples
To provide concrete folk culture examples, and explain how this dynamic functions, it might be opportune to compare how folk culture, the art and soul of the periphery, has developed in two countries on either side of Europe’s core.
Ireland − in the far West of the continent − and Romania − in the East.
Both countries, historically at least, have been quintessential peripheral places. Locations apart from the central drive of Europe, where life naturally moves slower, and change slower still. Places that feel the influence of advances elsewhere, but by the time it gets to them, its force has diminished.
And while change was making the journey, the locals were busy with their ancient ways and customs, dress and foods, alongside traditional societal roles.
When the ‘newness’ did finally arrive, it found in the Irish or Romanian heartland a folk culture strong and sturdily embedded. A culture which quickly subsumed the impact of the advances, rather than being taken over by them. Irish traditions or Romanian food continued to fill the daily life of the local.
Removed from the economic powerhouses, society in neither country was hijacked by an elite. It may have been ruled by an elite, but the folk culture was too strong to be stripped of its worth, the mass of poor and rural too numerous.
From the Renaissance on, elites across Europe made a distinction between their ‘high’ art and the ‘low’ art of the people. But this ruling elite was far away – in their fancy cities. Whilst in the Irish or Romanian countryside, art, culture and expression remained largely in the domain of the peasant.
After all, it was they who formed the vast bulk of the population, so who else would such cultural expression serve? An unmovable mass, their strength and endurance lay in always being strong and enduring, and, as epochs continued to pass, having long been strong and endured.
Both Dublin and Bucharest have historically of course been hooked into the wider network of change; and have been drivers of change in their own right. Busy places, where newness abounds and a specific fusion of modern and folk culture emerges. This can be seen, for example, in the Romanian food that is typical only of Bucharest, just as there are several Irish dishes that would have been exclusively confined to the capital, as in Dublin Coddle.
But, as with most European big cities, neither capital is representative of anything other than itself, the particular mix and flavor that has emerged there. They cannot be taken as shorthand for Ireland and Romania. Nor for Irish or Romanian food (dance, song, dress..). For that, you must travel deeper into the land, to the periphery of the periphery, experience places where the magic of folk culture still abounds.
With the ceaseless wave of newness swallowing schools of tradition whole, it’s more imperative than ever that we experience and embrace (our own) folk culture. Preserve it, find out what our people are all about.
While we still have the chance.
Irish Food Traditions
This need to embrace the folk culture of old is at the root of the Irish Buzz project. We have chosen Irish food traditions and authentic Irish dishes as our thrust, but this site is also a broader response to the plight of all that which, in the huff and puff of progress, is quickly being forgotten.
Because the Ireland of today is hugely different from that of only a couple of decades ago. The rapid economic growth and equally mercurial shift in cultural values makes one wonder what another couple of decades will bring.
Will there be enough of the old ways left to guide the Irish of the future?
Or, will, as has happened elsewhere in Europe, but a hollow, commercial version of the traditional remain? A situation emerging whereby locals consume a traditional product alongside the various other products in their life. It could just as well be from another country, but the label tells them it’s original them.
In such a setup, the local of course has some vague understanding of what the ‘authentic’ product means, what it represents, but they engage with it just as they do any other product (from anywhere else). Without identifying with the object beyond what it does, without feeling it as part of themselves. And certainly without taking on board the most important practical guidance folk culture brings us: Techniques.
Folk Culture – The Original Life Hacks
Long before there was How to Guides boasting all the latest life hacks, there was folk culture. A sprawling how to guide that has taken thousands of years and unaccountable hours of toil, thinking, love, to produce. The Simple Steps of which you could be sure would provide a (long-lasting) solution to your query.
I don’t need Google, my Wife Knows Everything wasn’t a T-shirt. Odds are, if you lived your daily in a traditional setting and your wife was over a certain age, she likely did know everything! At least everything you needed to get by!
This is because folk culture is about applicable skills. And despite all our ‘advances’, we owe it to the past, and to ourselves, to give careful consideration as to what we want maintained, and what we want to pass on to our children.
But we should know where the burden lies: whatever we want to keep can only be done through practicing the skills that have been handed down.
Irish dishes is the particular seam that our humble ANTIblog works. We are lucky enough to have had so many wonderful Irish dishes handed down to us. But unless it is active, constantly growing and adapting, a culture dies. If people forget the original methods of making Irish recipes, they will dwindle.
If we forget what it is to be Irish, or to feel Irish, this too will, over time, waste away. That’s not jingoism, that’s the way of life. Species die each day, some not yet even ‘discovered’ by human. It makes sense that something as intangible as an identity, a sense of heritage, or a particular recipe is at even greater risk.
But embracing our culture doesn’t have to be to the exclusion of others. That’s the beauty of digging deep into the folk culture of a specific region or people. If as a non-Irish person you increase your knowledge on Irish food traditions, you don’t just learn more about the ways of the Irish, you learn to see your own traditions. And get a clearer view of all humans. Your learning acts as a foil, with openhearted embracing of one cultural tradition spurring your embracing of (all) the others.
And once you engage folk culture in this way, the absurdness of how our societies magnify the small differences (in ethnicity, faith, social structure..), instead of embracing all that our human family has in common, will be enough to make your sides burst with laughter. The constructed nature of it all.
When as Irish near or abroad you make an old-fashioned liver and onions recipe or whip up some cockle-warming potato soup, you aren’t just enacting a rite of old Erin’s Isle, you follow on from – and alongside – every human that has ever engaged in such an act. Food is the ultimate communal activity – even if it’s a dinner for one…cooked by the world’s greatest hermit!
Plus, a strong candidate though we may be, even the Irish don’t have the monopoly on potatoes. Yes, between 1650 and 1850 we may be the only culture to have successfully developed a strain of half-human, half-spud creatures. Yes, on the eve of the Great Potato Famine the AVERAGE Irish person ate 7 lbs of potatoes per day. And yes, in many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa they’re not called ‘potatoes’ but rather ‘Irish potatoes’.
This is all true.
But can Spud Almighty be regarded as ‘Irish’? Not on your nelly! Count on your hands and toes (the most popular) Irish potato recipes, count on the hairs of your head those hailing from other parts.
Food, in all its forms and manifestation, unites us. And Irish Buzz was built to engage the power of food to transcend cultural boundaries. To this end, we have brought you guest pieces from fellow foodies native to places as far removed from each other as Poland, Canada, and Serbia, and will soon continue our foray into the fascinating realm of Balkan food through appraisal of a monumental new book by Romanian food writer Irina Georgescu.
Left aside by the ‘high’ culture of the elite, both Romania and Ireland are, by default, bastions of folk culture. It’s what happens when people are left to their own devices! What else to do but dance, toil and whip up Irish dishes? Both countries are also facing similar challenges as to how to preserve these traditions in the face of rapid change.
So, it is with pleasure that we collaborate with Irina Georgescu and take the opportunity to show solidarity with her mission to bring to the wider world the Romanian food recipes that have been handed down to her. Watch this space as we continue to use the medium of food to transcend borders!
Until then, perhaps take a moment to yourself, to think about (or better yet, feel about) what ways or techniques you would wish to pass on to upcoming generations.