Maura Laverty: Ireland’s first celebrity chef still dishes up food for thought

Maura Laverty’s stories are full of recipes, her recipes full of stories. Her cookbooks, from Flour Economy in 1941 to Full and Plenty in 1960, reveal much about Irish life

 

Did you ever eat colcannon when ‘twas made with yellow cream,
And the kale and praties blended like the picture in a dream?
Did you ever take a forkful, and dip it in the lake
Of the heather-flavoured butter that your mother used to make?
Oh, you did; yes, you did. So did he and so did I,
And the more I think about it, sure the more I want to cry.
Ah, God be with the happy times, when troubles we had not,
And our mothers made colcannon in the little three-legged pot.

In her 1960 cookbook, Full and Plenty, Maura Laverty uses this “nostalgic questionnaire” to demonstrate the connections between Irish food, heritage, and cooking skills. Echoing the song, she begins the actual recipe for colcannon by asking “Did you ever know the thrill of finding that lucky thrupenny-bit in your portion of our national Hallow-e’en dish?” She is referring, here, to the ritual of wrapping a coin in paper and adding it to a dish of colcannon before serving, so that some lucky eater could scoop it up.

Laverty, building to her punchline, asks her reader to recollect the “[C]ruel disappointment” if “what you hoped was a paper-wrapped coin turned out to be merely a lump of hard potato”. Fortunately, such distress – brought on by incompetent cooking – could be alleviated: “Put the cooked potatoes through a sieve or ricer. Beat in a good lump of butter or margarine and enough hot milk to make the mixture light and fluffy. Add to the potato mixture one-half its bulk of finely chopped cooked kale and a tablespoonful of minced onion. Beat well and reheat thoroughly.” She concludes, “[A]nd do not forget that all-important silver coin which, in view of the increased cost of sweet-eating, should be at least a sixpence.”

During the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, electrification, the installation of indoor running water and the availability and promotion of previously unfamiliar food products transformed the nature of home for a large proportion of the Irish population. These innovations inevitably altered the experience of that physical space for its inhabitants. They also fostered changes in the day-to-day activities – food-related and otherwise – of household members, activities that were functional but that also helped constitute personal, family and community identity.

There are numerous ways to tease out and contemplate the nuances of this particular phase of Irish women’s and family history. One is to interview individuals who participated in it. Others include exploring archives of organisations that were involved in this transition, and accessing fictional or nonfictional accounts of the period.

Examining cookbooks of the time is a further option and, in the case of Maura Laverty’s cookbooks, a fascinating one. Full and Plenty (reissued in 1966) is no mere collection of recipes: it is part home economics manual, part fiction, part creative memoir, part assortment of historical and folk tales, and it reflects Laverty’s accomplishments as an author and playwright. Alongside her other cookbooks – Flour Economy (1941); Kind Cooking (1946), reissued in 1947 as Maura Laverty’s Cookbook; and Feasting Galore (1952) – it reflects a period of active transition, by simultaneously reinforcing the importance of Irish food tradition and embedding new technologies that would spread from urban areas to most of the countryside by the end of the 1960s. In so doing, the collection adds welcome complexity to studies of women’s agency in the home as a function of food-related behaviour.

Unlike Laverty’s novels, which were banned or decried because they approached controversial subjects in a graphic way, her cookbooks could be successfully subversive in part because of their genre: they could fly under the radar, seemingly innocuous as mere accumulations of cooking instructions, or as in the case of Feasting Galore, as shamrock-bedecked tourist blarney.

In Laverty’s cookbooks, the persona of the Irish woman of the house countered assumptions of docility, self-deprecation and mere passive acceptance of the duty to accommodate nutritional needs and generate and support sturdy citizens. Instead, food-related practice was to be acknowledged as contributing, in pivotal ways, to Ireland’s national narrative. A close reading of the language and storylines in these works highlights the remarkable abilities and positive impact that Irish women could and did have in the domestic sphere and beyond. Evident also is the resourcefulness with which women could and did adapt to evolving economic circumstances and incursions of modernity, and the sense of accomplishment that could come with housework – and especially cooking – if contemplated as a means of empowerment not oppression, and as a vocation unequivocally warranting deep appreciation and respect.

Food-related activities recounted in these pages were promoted as self-fulfilling, “calm-giving”, pleasurable, and creative; they could bestow influence and authority; and they reinforced affiliation with the land and with the nation. This theme is manifested, for example, in parables, inserted amongst the recipes, which underscore the rewards of talented cooking. Statia Dunne, the heroine of one of these tales, was “not the type to catch a man’s eye”, and also “at an age when she had almost given up hope of ever having a man of her own to cook for”. Nevertheless, one day, on a house call to Statia’s elderly mother, Dr Crowley succumbs to the aroma of Statia’s exceptional stew; meals later, they marry. Other parts of the cookbooks privilege Irish food expertise derived over generations, heritage built from memories stored in the mind and also remembered by the body, for example as honed technique, learned over time, in executing particular movements (such as the “light hand” needed for pastry; the cook without this gift is given a breadcrumb crust recipe as an alternate strategy for success).

Laverty’s optimism, captured in these pages, is about women’s potential and proficiency, and about the future as well as the past. It seems a heroic attempt to stimulate a proactive response to the challenging economic conditions that characterised many households in mid-twentieth-century Ireland, especially in rural areas (out of which came the highest proportion of women emigrants during that period). However, and this is a key point, in all her cookbooks, Maura Laverty is for the most part not naïve or sentimental but, rather, pragmatic and practical about kitchen expectations – about the demands of time and energy on the woman of the house, the under-valuation of women’s domestic work, the cost and availability of certain foods (not only luxury foods) and food technologies, and the degree to which a philosophy of cooking ought to privilege, both time-honoured skills first developed at the hearth, and innovations of the day such as tinned foods and electrical appliances. After all, as she informs her readers in Maura Laverty’s Cookbook:

When friends come unexpected, do I fuss and tear my hair,
Although there’s only meat enough for two?
No; I walk into my pantry with a calm, unruffled air.
I fetch the can of bully-beef that’s waiting for me there,
I mix it with an onion and a fervent grateful prayer,
And for dinner we have savoury ragout.

Virtually any occupation, for men or for women, within the home or outside it, could be gratifying or tedious at various stages of execution. Moreover, one’s attitude in doing that work plays a large role in making it seem satisfying or stifling. These points seem to have inspired Maura Laverty’s determination to provide a model, for her readers, that underscores cooking as affirmative performance - mundane yet inspirational, realistic yet aspirational. As exemplars of constructive prescriptive behavior - much more than just lists of ingredients and cooking procedures - her cookbooks hold up for view a rich and compelling Irish food culture that is part tradition, part spanking-new modern (for the time), and all important as a source of agency and self-recognition for homemakers.

This recipe from Full and Plenty is taken from a copy that belonged to my cousin-in-law, Rosie O’Keeffe of Summerfield, Youghal, Co Cork. It is dated in her hand, 4 March 1960.

Statia Dunne’s Stew

Ingredients: 2 lbs. round steak, 4 stalks celery, 1 white turnip, 2 medium onions, 3 medium carrots, 2 tablespoons bacon fat, 2 tomatoes, 1½ tablespoons flour, 1 teaspoon sugar, ¼ teaspoon dry mustard, 1 teaspoon yeast extract (Gye or Marmite), 1 pint water, 1 teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon pepper, 1 dessertspoon chopped parsley, bouquet garni, 1 teaspoon vinegar.

Method: Trim meat and cut it in 1-inch cubes. Chop celery and onions. Dice carrots and turnip, peel and slice tomatoes. Mix flour with pepper, salt and dry mustard. Melt bacon fat in frying pan. Roll meat in seasoned flour and brown quickly. Place meat in stewpan. Blend remainder of flour with fat in pan; stir until brown. Stir in water mixed with yeast extract and vinegar; add sugar and bring to a boil. Pour over meat, add bouquet garni, cover and simmer 1½ hours. Add vegetables. Simmer until vegetables are tender. Remove bouquet garni. Serve stew in a browned border of mashed potatoes with parsley sprinkled on top.

This is an edited version of an essay taken from Ireland and Quebec: Multidisciplinary perspectives on history, culture and society, edited by Margaret Kelleher and Michael Kenneally (Four Courts Press). Rhona Richman Kenneally is Professor, Design and Computation Arts Fellow, School of Canadian Irish Studies at Concordia University, Montreal

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