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The Irish For: What is with our love affair with coleslaw?

Darach Ó Séaghdha looks back at the introduction of coleslaw to Ireland and wonders why exactly we embraced this strange mix of veg and mayo.

Darach Ó Séaghdha Writer

THERE IS A French proverb that says that heaven never made as perfect a marriage as that between pears and cheese.

As well as giving practical advice to try this combination of flavours, it implies that unlikely pairings can work out very well – this is certainly the emphasis of the proverb’s Italian version “do not let the peasant know how good cheese is with pears”. 

In the Irish culinary tradition, a different unlikely pairing comes to mind: the serving of lasagne with dollops of cold, creamy coleslaw. While this isn’t unknown in other countries, it is particularly enduring on this island. But how come? And when did this start to be considered a shibboleth telling of a rural-urban divide?

The Ministry of Food

Coleslaw was first mentioned in an Irish newspaper in September 1942. The Ministry of Food, a wartime department established to teach families how to prepare meals with the rations available, announced “American Week” in the Belfast Telegraph.

It suggested some all-American recipes as a way to make US soldiers billeted with local families feel less homesick (other suggested recipes included pumpkin pie and baked beans).

The coleslaw of the 1940s would not be recognisable to modern diners, however: a recipe from 1947 calls for the inclusion of sugar and pineapple juice.

Seasonality

Refrigerators were still a status symbol in the Ireland of the 50s and 60s, which led to chilled foods such as prawn cocktails, potato salad and coleslaw being the height of sophistication.

So when delicatessens became more widespread in the 1960s and 1970s in Ireland, they appealed to these tastes directly. Coleslaw would have been sold side by side with pre-cooked lasagnes, and the trend of serving them together may very well have its roots in this coincidence.

However, a more pressing motive was responsible for the combination becoming widespread. In a lasagne recipe published in 1977, Georgina Campbell advised readers that while the very best thing to have with a lasagne was a fresh green salad, a bowl of coleslaw would be easier and cheaper to get when such ingredients were not in season.

In this sense, the combination of coleslaw with lasagne is a reminder of a time when importing perishable green vegetables by plane from a country with a very different climate seemed completely ridiculous. We know better now, of course.

Decline

Coleslaw’s popularity, with or without lasagne next to it, continued unhindered throughout the 1980s.

The Irish for coleslaw is cálslá, which wasn’t deemed relevant enough for the 1977 Foclóir, perhaps an indication of how cosmopolitan the dish was seen at that time.

By the 1990s, however, change was afoot as more options became available to a more well-travelled population. Then in 1996, there was a turning point when the Circuit Court ruled in favour of a woman who had contracted food poisoning from supermarket coleslaw while pregnant.

The court heard that coleslaw provided an ideal environment for listeria to multiply and that this was particularly dangerous for pregnant women. 

Although normally the foods that are deemed forbidden to the pregnant are highly prestigious – coffee, soft cheese, sushi – this ruling had the opposite effect on coleslaw.

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Rebirth?

Coleslaw became a punchline throughout the Celtic Tiger, but just as previously uncool foodstuffs like Brussels sprouts and coddle have started to make a comeback, the creamy cabbage and carrot combo may very well be ripe for reinvention. 

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About the author:

Darach Ó Séaghdha  / Writer

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