A feast for the eyes and a taste for fiction: the literature of food

Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire whets the appetite for Dublin Gastronomy Symposium 2016. Its theme is revolution, from imaginary WWII feasts to barley in pockets of 1798 rebels

If food is fundamental to life and a substance upon which civilisations and cultures have built themselves, then it is also fundamental to the literary imagination. Whether in memoir, fiction or poetry, writers continually hark back to childhood experiences of food, even when the intended audience is adults rather than children, as with Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.

The most downloaded paper from the archives of the Dublin Gastronomy Symposium to date is Michael Flanagan’s Cowpie, Gruel and Midnight Feasts: The Representation of Food in Popular Children’s Literature from the inaugural event in 2012. This reflects the global interest in food and literature and a certain generation’s nostalgia for Enid Blyton’s tales of “lashings of ginger beer”.

James Joyce’s work is replete with food references, from the sumptuous feast in The Dead, to Ulysses, where breakfasts bookend Bloom’s waking and his falling asleep. Food businesses featured in Ulysses in 1904 Dublin, ranging from the Polish butcher, the Ormond Hotel, Davy Byrne’s to the Cabman’s shelter, under the Loopline bridge, all provide the social historian with a taste of the time. The stories that are embodied in food history may be accessed via many different academic disciplines including sociology, archaeology and anthropology. But literature, particularly the novel, according to Oliver McDonagh, writing back in 1970, can “yield insights and possibilities of recovering special portions of the past, for which we shall search in vain in any other matter”. Indeed Joe Lee pointed out in 1989 that “it is to the writers the historian must turn, as usual, for the larger truth” about modern Ireland.

The Dublin Gastronomy Symposium does not limit itself to children’s literature. A landmark publication, Tickling the Palate: Gastronomy in Irish Literature and Culture (Peter Lang, 2014), co-edited by this writer and Eamon Maher, was launched at the 2014 biennial event. It contains chapters on James Joyce, Maria Edgeworth, John McGahern and Sebastian Barry, along with a marvellous foreword from Darra Goldstein, who notes that Irish literature and poetry is replete with food references, highlighting particularly Seamus Heaney’s Oysters poem. Peeling potatoes with his mother is the subject matter of the Heaney work voted Ireland’s favourite poem in 2015. This collection of essays has since become the bestselling title in Peter Lang’s Reimagining Ireland series, and won a Gourmand World Food History Award in 2015.


Gastronomy can capture the imagination in times of revolution or indeed in times of severe hunger. The third biennial Dublin Gastronomy Symposium will take place in DIT Cathal Brugha Street on May 31st and June 1st around the theme of revolution. Ursula Heizelmann’s presentations will discuss the French documentary filmmaker Anne Georget’s Festins Imaginaires, previewed at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival. This film is based on imaginary feasts that took place in the Nazi concentration camp of Ravensbrück in 1944. There is a growing literature on these types of events: indeed, Georget produced a documentary film in 2008, Les Recettes de Minna, about a recipe collection from the Nazi camp in Terezín which was also published as a book.

This year’s symposium will have a number of papers around the theme of war. For example, Diarmuid Murphy’s paper will discuss how in guerrilla warfare, the revolutionaries depend on the support and goodwill of the general population for their food and noting that this is as important as their weapons in war. In his 1966 poem, Requiem for the Croppies, which deals with the battle of Vinegar Hill in Wexford in 1798, Heaney refers to the absence of field kitchens and the rebels’ habit of carrying barley in their pockets whilst conducting a guerrilla war through “hedge and ditch”. The poem’s melancholy climax then speaks of the thousands of rebels killed and barley (from the pockets of dead rebels) growing out their graves.

Aylin Öney Tan, a Turkish food scholar, will present a paper titled Anzac Biscuits versus Peksimet: How Food Logistics affected Gallipoli War, which will suggest it was the better provisioning of the Turkish soldiers that ensured them victory. Pádraig Pearse must not have been planning on a long drawn-out war when he asked the volunteers to bring only eight hours’ rations with them in 1916! One paper at this year’s symposium deals with Dublin youths’ sweet revolution during 1916 and quotes a story from Joe Duffy’s recent publication about an eight-year-old boy who risks his life dodging bullets to steal a wooden box from Noblett’s confectionary shop on O’Connell Street, only to find out on reaching safety in Talbot Street that the box was empty!

Symposiasts need not worry about bringing rations or going hungry as this year’s meals include an Irish artisanal lunch in Cathal Brugha Street, dinner with Claire Hanley in the King’s Inns, and a Michelin star lunch on the Wednesday in both Chapter One and The Hot Stove in Parnell Square. More than 50 speakers from 16 countries will discuss revolutionary aspects of food and gastronomy. Topics covered include advertising, Africa, agriculture, art, beverages, cuisine, diplomatic dining, education, food security, history, politics, publishing, the Russian Revolution, science, tourism, world war, and, of course, food in the 1916 Rising.

The event has doubled in size from the initial 2012 symposium and sold out shortly after being advertised. With the centenary year of the 1916 Easter Rising and also with Cathal Brugha Street College celebrating its 75th anniversary, the organising committee has developed a really exciting programme. The main sponsors are Manor Farm and Fáilte Ireland and the award-winning author of Cuisine and Empire (University of California Press: 2013), Dr Rachel Laudan, will be the keynote speaker. In addition, Prof Louis Michael Cullen and Dr Joseph A Hegarty will be awarded the inaugural honorary fellowships for their inestimable contribution to food history and the study of gastronomy in Ireland.

On Wednesday afternoon a round table will take place featuring Rhona Richman Kenneally of Concordia University, Montreal, food scholar and editor of the Canadian Journal of Irish Studies; JP McMahon, Michelin starred chef and restaurateur (Eat Galway) and Irish Times columnist; Regina Sexton, food historian from University College Cork, and Mark Moriarty, winner of the San Pellegrino Young Chef award in 2015. To tie in with the 1916 centenary, Fionnán Ó Connor and the Irish Whiskey Society will host a special tasting of their 1916 Whiskey, which promises to be intriguing.

It is apt that the launch of an important new book, Food and Drink in Ireland, published by the Royal Irish Academy, will close the event on Wednesday at 6.30pm in DIT, Cathal Brugha Street. This volume emerged from a special issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy edited by Elizabeth Fitzpatrick and James Kelly, and features 13 chapters from expert authors ranging from Mesolithic Ireland up to the present day.

To view this year's or past years' papers and for more information consult the symposium webpage arrow.dit.ie/dgs/