Radio review: Humble spud provides food for thought

Lyric’s new food series provided a diverting take on our past, while the Documentary On One lent a sympathetic ear to faith healers

The Lyric Feature: History On A Plate (Lyric, Friday), a new series exploring food and recipes from Ireland’s past, which last week looked at, you guessed it, the humble spud. Presented by historian Juliana Adelman and Irish Times restaurant critic Catherine Cleary (above), and produced by Claire Cunningham, the documentary showed just how wrongheaded the old Spitting Image sketch was.

The Lyric Feature: History On A Plate (Lyric, Friday), a new series exploring food and recipes from Ireland’s past, which last week looked at, you guessed it, the humble spud. Presented by historian Juliana Adelman and Irish Times restaurant critic Catherine Cleary (above), and produced by Claire Cunningham, the documentary showed just how wrongheaded the old Spitting Image sketch was.

Sat, Jul 13, 2013, 06:00

Back in the days when the Soviet Union still existed, the British satirical puppet show Spitting Image mocked conditions in the communist state with a sketch about a programme called Potato World. In this fictitious show, three Leonid Brezhnev lookalikes assessed the merits of sundry tubers, praising them for being “potato-y”. As well as taking a Cold War swipe at the paucity of the food in the USSR, the skit also lampooned the regime’s famously drab media. After all, what could be duller than a programme devoted to potatoes?

That particular comedy chestnut came to mind when listening to The Lyric Feature: History On A Plate (Lyric, Friday), a new series exploring food and recipes from Ireland’s past, which last week looked at, you guessed it, the humble spud. Presented by historian Juliana Adelman and Irish Times restaurant critic Catherine Cleary, and produced by Claire Cunningham, the documentary showed just how wrongheaded the old Spitting Image sketch was. For one thing, given its central role in the trauma of the Famine, it is hard to imagine any Irish person being so flippantly dismissive of the potato. Moreover, the show proved that this derided root vegetable could make for enlightening subject matter.

Helming a format that mixed social history with food archeology, the presenters uncovered how the foodstuff became so vital to the Irish peasantry. Historian Cormac Ó Gráda pointed out that the potato is almost unique, in that a person can live almost exclusively on it: for all that three million people were reliant on this restricted diet on the eve of the Famine, they were relatively healthy by the standards of the time. But the practicalities of such a regimen were staggering: the average adult male had to eat 40 or 50 potatoes daily. Potato world indeed.

Wisely, the programme did not attempt to deal directly with the Famine. Instead, it looked at how the ingredient also featured in the cookery of the ascendency. Historian Dorothy Cashman said the central place of the potato in our history, culinary and otherwise, had overshadowed the vibrant food culture that existed in the kitchens of big houses. Possibly so – though it sounded like revisionism gone mad – but either way such a heritage is unlikely to rest on the vintage dish recreated by chef (and Irish Times cookery writer) Domini Kemp, who prepared an old recipe for a potato pudding, made with sugar, lemon and eggs.

“The flavour is nice,” said Kemp tentatively, as she tasted the dessert with the dubious co-presenters. “But it does still taste like mashed potatoes.” It may be possible to make an enjoyably offbeat and occasionally provocative programme out of the potato, but its limitations as an ingredient remain harder to
transcend.

Another traditional practice from the past, albeit one which persists to this day, came in for attention last week on the Documentary On One: The Cure At Hand (RTE Radio One, Saturday), as presenter and producer Kevin McCann looked at faith-healing. For those of a rational bent, the programme made for alarming fare, highlighting just how many people still flock to spiritual healers for help with ailments. McCann initially came from the sceptical camp, but by the end of the documentary he seemed ready to concede that such healing could sometimes work in mysterious ways.

Certainly, there were cases that seemed to defy scientific logic. One woman, Suzanne, recounted how she ignored her doctor’s advice and ceased taking medication for her epilepsy after receiving a spiritual cure: she never had another seizure. Meanwhile, a man named Tony visited a healer shortly before an operation for cancer in his lung: when he went under the knife, the malignant growths had disappeared, leaving doctors baffled.

Stories such as these inspired those people who waited to visit healer Danny Gallagher. There was a palpable air of frustration at the inability of conventional medicine to deal with complaints suchas the psoriasis that afflicted young Kate, who had been brought along by her mother, herself a nurse. Despite her medical training, the mother thought that faith-healing was “deeper”: that this was their third attempt to find such a cure for Kate’s skin disease added a poignant note, even as it bolstered one’s scepticism. Others were more openly opposed to the medical profession, claiming doctors denied faith-healing because it would undermine their positions, a belief which seemed less ludicrous than potentially lethal.

As for the seventh son of a seventh son himself, Gallagher had a soft-spoken, comforting manner as he went about his vocation, laying hands on McCann in an effort to alleviate the presenter’s diabetes. “Like countless generations before me,” the latter narrated, “I shut my eyes, searched deep inside and asked myself to believe in the cure.” It was a strangely soothing and mesmerising sequence, which suggested that Gallagher was genuine in intent if not necessarily effective: McCann’s condition remained unchanged.

“For some it works, for some not,” the latter concluded, an ambivalent verdict that provided a somewhat unsatisfying denouement to an otherwise absorbing documentary. The programme may not have done enough to convince doubters, but it had an incantatory style and otherworldly atmosphere that proved the magic of radio, if nothing else.

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