Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Clarkson & Crawford's "Feast and Famine": Book Review

This accessible, but academically grounded survey covers four centuries of patterns in eating and drinking. Although alcohol and potatoes receive their expected due, Leslie A. Clarkson and E. Margaret Crawford remind us, by careful documentation, that indulgence in both is often exaggerated in the dietary record as opposed to popular assumptions. The potato came in slowly, only after 1750 becoming the staple for poorer people that led, a century later, to the most devastating of a series of famines.

The authors note how a third of the Irish (who in turn as largely agricultural workers supplied two-thirds of Irish production for export more than home use of many foodstuffs) relied on the spud at its height. Claims of a dozen pounds-plus of potatoes feeding a man, or pounds of stirabout, appear inflated, however, as the writers show when analyzing workhouse records of the 19c. Post-Famine, fewer potatoes were found on the everyday table.

Before the Great Famine, the lowest-third of the Irish population turned to potatoes for primary sustenance, while the other ranks became, as with the English, more varied in diet thanks to imperial trade. Not only sugar and tea but meat and milk could be found often. Brandy, sugar, coffee, rice, fruit and vegetables might be found along with wheaten bread, for example.

After the Famine, Irish patterns for all returned to the norm--which was not a state of prolonged deprivation at meals. Clarkson and Crawford show that Ireland lacked a "famine-prone history." Rather, the scholars counter that most of the time, everyone was "nutritionally well provided for." (280)

This may surprise some raised on patriotic accounts of mass hunger and endless poverty. But the authors remind readers how a normal pattern for a peasant might be one year of loss in seven of plenty; this cycle would be seen as wonderful by comparison long ago, whereas for us, it'd be seen as dreadful.

The writers contrast food as what we eat; nutrition is not so chronicled by many in the past, but it takes in pleasure, satisfaction, and rewards from food, often less noted in the historical charts. On average, this study finds our ancestors provided for decently, even if as all people back then, they died off earlier on average due to poorer medical and sanitary systems.

Most of the time, the gentry in Ireland and their peers in London tended not to notice the approach of famine and want. If it did not weaken their rent rolls. it did not impinge as much on their routine as later inquirers might have assumed.

Full of charts and sprinkled with some wry hints of exasperation with misinformed claims for native diet and impact on Irish sensibilities from contemporary observers as well as recent historians,  "Feast and Famine: Food and Nutrition in Ireland 1500-1920" gathers a couple decades of research arrayed in a readable, informative style. As one coming to this topic curious but with no background in food history, I welcomed its contributions in clear language and thoughtful analysis. (Amazon US 3-1-12)

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