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The Irish For: 'Tis far from pizza and spaghetti we were reared

Darach Ó Séaghdha asks what words for foreign foods tell us about Ireland.

Darach Ó Séaghdha Writer

THERE’S A MOMENT of comic relief in Brooklyn when Saoirse Ronan practices eating strange new food in advance of meeting the family of her Italian-American suitor.

The idea that something as ordinary as spaghetti could be unfamiliar and challenging to an Irish person in the fairly recent past is funny but also telling.

That book and film are set in 1951; by 1959, spaghetti was relevant enough to Irish people to warrant inclusion in De Bhaldraithe’s foclóir (spaigití). An entry for curry (curaí) is also included, but pizza, hamburger and sushi would have to wait decades to be added.

Sometimes people tease Irish speakers by asking why there’s no word as Gaeilge for espresso or biryani, blithely unaware that there is no English word either.

However the comment raises a point about food’s place in discussions about language and power – loanwords between languages reflect the imbalances in the relationships between the different communities, with one preparing food for the other following migration, tourism or military activity.

While abstract ideas peculiar to one culture (like karma or hygge) will gradually enter the other language when there is no substitute, food terms tend to move quickly because they are tangible and more urgent.

BROOKLYN Saoirse Ronan plays Eilis Lacey Fiorello in Brooklyn. Source: Fox Searchlight

Ireland’s world reputation for quality food products, such as beef and butter, greatly exceeds the reputation of our national dishes.

Perhaps this is why Irish pubs have caught on internationally but Irish restaurants have not, and why food loanwords have tended to move in one direction. But the different times and contexts in which these loanwords arrived in Ireland tell a story too:

Hamburger (burgar mairteola) - a recipe for “Hamburg steaks” was included in the Evening Herald in 1932. A 1939 recipe, also in the Herald, describes serving hamburgers as a way of breaking the weekly routine with a bit of American razzmatazz.

The recipe even suggests another far-out food hack from across the Atlantic: the adding of salt and pepper, saying that “condiments are real insurance against dull food”.

Pizza (píotsa) - when E.T. came out in 1982, some reviews at the time had to explain the American phenomenon of pizza delivered in a box to Irish audiences.

Pizza itself was a recent discovery, spelt within inverted commas in print as recently as the mid-70s. Even then it was poorly understood; a description of the popular dish in the Irish Press in 1966 described it as “a round cake filled with anchovies, tomatoes and cheese”.

Two years later, the Donegal Democrat offered its readers a recipe for what they considered to be pizza: herrings on a scone base.

Curry (curaí) –Ireland’s cultural ties to the British Empire led to a more active transfer of food culture than its inward migration from, and religious connection to, Italy: unlike pizza, curry is referenced without inverted commas in Irish newspapers as far back as the 1890s.

However, specific curry varieties like jalfrezi or korma don’t appear until the 1980s, suggesting that these early curries may not have been too authentic.

traditional-baking-farmhouse-cakes-ireland Traditional Irish food did not include spaghetti or pizza. Source: The Irish Image Collection

Ready at different times

Italian migration to Ireland dates back to the nineteenth century. So, how come two Italian foods like pizza and spaghetti entered Irish and Hiberno-English decades apart?

A social diarist’s column in the Irish Press from 1971 gives us a clue. Recounting a fancy Dublin party she recently attended, she describes how the guests were gobsmacked when their host, a suave bachelor, offered them slices of pizza with their drinks.

They could not comprehend how this busy man could find the time after work to knead and toss the dough, mash tomatoes into a paste and prepare the other ingredients from scratch. It had not occurred to them that their host was an early adapter to the novel concept of frozen food.

shutterstock_1051383581 Shutterstock. Source: Shutterstock/Elena Veselova

Strict licencing laws and low disposable income meant that Ireland did not have much of a restaurant culture to speak of in those pre-EEC days when international cuisine was usually first tried in the family home.

While dry spaghetti and curry powder could be stored for weeks and then cooked in a pot over a fire, making pizzas and hamburgers required more expensive equipment, storage and preparation before pre-made options were deemed viable.

In this way, the arrival of food loanwords into Ireland and Gaeilge reflects the arrival of supermarkets and refrigerators as much as they reflect migration.

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About the author:

Darach Ó Séaghdha  / Writer

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