Sunday, October 31, 2010

When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, I Make Something Irish Sounding!

The temps are dropping again (thank you!) and Hallowe'en is here. My Celtic roots are calling and nothing helps soothe my soul than something that makes me think Irish!

Irish Vegetable Stew

1 yellow onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 t. caraway seeds
1/4 c. all-purpose flour
3 c. vegetable stock
1 bay leaf
1 t. dried thyme
3 medium carrots, sliced
5 medium potatoes, diced (I don't peel mine)
1 small head of cabbage, chopped
15 ounces canned cannellini beans, rinsed and drained

In a large pot, sauté the onion, garlic, and caraway seeds in a little olive oil until onions soften, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle about a 1/4 cup of flour over the onions and mix well to coat. Add the vegetable stock and stir until flour is dissolved. Add the bay leaf, thyme, potatoes, carrots, and cabbage. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the white beans and simmer for an additional 10 minutes, or until vegetables are soft. Add salt and black pepper to taste.

I served mine with a nice loaf of rye bread and some vegan butter to spread on it.

People often associate potatoes with the Irish, but potatoes really aren't native to the island. Archaeologists have found potato remains that date back to 500 B.C in the ancient ruins of Peru and Chile. The Incas grew and ate them and also worshipped them. They even buried potatoes with their dead! Seems somehow appropriate to serve them this close to Samhain! The Spanish conquistadors first encountered the potato when they went to Peru in 1532 in search of gold. Spanish explorer and conqueror, Gonzalo Jiminez de Quesada (1499-1579), took the potato to Spain in lieu of the gold he did not find.

The potato was carried on to Italy and England about 1585, to Belgium and Germany by 1587, to Austria about 1588, and to France around 1600. Wherever the potato was introduced, it was considered weird, poisonous, and downright evil. In France and elsewhere, the potato was accused of causing not only leprosy, but also syphilis, narcosis, scronfula, early death, sterillity, and rampant sexuality, and of destroying the soil where it grew. Parts of France thought it was so bad, they made it illegal to grow them!

An Irish legend says that ships of the Spanish Armada, wrecked off the Irish coast in 1588, were carrying potatoes and that some of them washed ashore. However, it is probably more likely that Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618), British explorer and historian known for his expeditions to the Americas, first brought the potato to Ireland and planted them at his Irish estate at Myrtle Grove, Youghal, near Cork, Ireland. Legend has it that he made a gift of the potato plant to Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603). The local gentry were invited to a royal banquet featuring the potato in every course. Unfortunately, the cooks were uneducated in the matter of potatoes, tossed out the lumpy-looking tubers and brought to the royal table a dish of boiled stems and leaves (which are poisonous), which promptly made everyone deathly ill. The potatoes were then banned from court.

The potato was definitely getting a bad rap everywhere it was introduced!

Potatoes had been introduced to the United States several times throughout the 1600s. They were not widely grown for almost a century until 1719, when they were planted in Londonderry, New Hampshire, by Scotch-Irish immigrants, and from there spread across the nation.

The "Great Famine" or also called the "Great Starvation" in Ireland (or, in their language, an Gorta Mór, meaning "the Great Hunger or an Drochshaol, meaning "the bad times") was caused because the potato crop became diseased. The proximate cause disease commonly known as potato blight, or Phytophthora infestans. Although blight ravaged potato crops throughout Europe during the 1840s, the impact and human cost in Ireland—where a third of the population was entirely dependent on the potato for food—was exacerbated by a host of political, social and economic factors which remain the subject of historical debate.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Irish Catholics had been prohibited by the penal laws from owning land, from leasing land; from voting, from holding political office; from living in a corporate town or within five miles of a corporate town, from obtaining education, from entering a profession, and from doing many other things that are necessary in order to succeed and prosper in life. The laws had largely been reformed by 1793. Starting in 1801, Ireland had been directly governed, under the Act of Union, as part of the United Kingdom. Executive power lay in the hands of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and Chief Secretary for Ireland, both of whom were appointed by the British government. During the 18th century a new system for managing the landlord's property was introduced in the form of the "middleman system". Rent collection was left in the hands of the landlords' agents, or middlemen. This assured the (usually Protestant) landlord of a regular income, and relieved them of any responsibility; the tenants however were then subject to exploitation through these middlemen. In 1845, 24% of all Irish tenant farms were of one to five acres in size, while 40% were of five to fifteen acres. Holdings were so small that only potatoes—no other crop—would suffice to feed a family. The British Government reported, shortly before the famine, that poverty was so widespread that one third of all Irish small holdings could not support their families, after paying their rent, except by earnings of seasonal migrant labour in England and Scotland.

At the height of the famine (around 1845), at least one million people died of starvation. This famine left many poverty stricken families with no choice but to struggle for survival or emigrate out of Ireland. Towns became deserted, and all the best shops closed because store owners were forced to emigrate due to the amount of unemployment. Over one and a half million people left Ireland for North America and Australia. Over just a few years, the population of Ireland dropped by one half, from about 9 million to little more than 4 million. The famine was a watershed in the history of Ireland. Its effects permanently changed the island's demographic, political and cultural landscape.

I do genealogy as a hobby, and learned that my Irish immigrant ancestors left Ireland before the Great Famine, arriving here in the United States in the 1820s. I've always wondered how the family they left behind fared.

Interestingly, as of 2001 the Irish were consuming more potatoes than most countries in the world.

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