Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Ballads of Food: The Correlation between Irish Immigrants to America and the Food They Ate

This is an archaeological post from my four weeks at Strawbery Banke Summer Field School 2015.

“The fort we reached was beautiful,
With works of custards think,

Beyond the lake.

Fresh butter was the bridge in front,
The rubble dyke was fair white wheat
Bacon the palisade.
Stately, pleasantly it sat,
A compact house and strong.
Then I went in:
The door of it was hung beef,
The threshold was dry bread,
Cheese-curds the walls.
Smooth pillars of old cheese
And sappy bacon props
Alternate ranged;
Stately beams of mellow cream,
White posts of real curds
Kept up the house”

(Crotty 2010 pp 58).

“The beef and the beer of the Saxon may build up good, strong hefty men;
The Scot goes for haggis and porridge and likes a ‘wee drap’ now and then;
The German may spice up a sausage that’s fit for great Kaisers and Queens,
But the Irishman’s dish is my darling -- a flitch of boiled bacon and greens.
They laughed at the pig in the kitchen when Ireland lay groaning in chains,
But the pig paid the rent,
so no wonder our ‘smack’ for his breed still remains,
And what has a taste so delicious as ‘griskins’ and juicy ‘crubeens’,
And what gives health, strength and beauty like bacon, potatoes and greens?”

(“Bacon and Greens”, Con O’Brien)

“To what meals the woods invite me
All about!
There are
water, herbs and cresses,
Salmon, trout.
A clutch of eggs, sweet mast and honey
Are my meat,
Heathberries and whortleberries for a sweet.
All that one could ask for comfort
Round me grows,
There are hips and haws and strawberries,
Nuts and sloes.
And when summer spreads its mantle
What a sight!
Marjoram and leeks and pignuts,
Juicy, bright”

(Crotty 2010 pp 12).

The history of people has always fascinated me.  Although I am not of Irish background, I am composed of various European backgrounds, and am a self-proclaimed anglophile.  Anything about the British Isles and Ireland interests me.  From the Celtic and Gaelic music and other cultural influences, to what life was like for these people throughout different times in history.

This brings us to Strawbery Banke, and the large amount of Irish immigrants in the 1800 to 1900s to America, including Portsmouth, NH.  I have spent the last four weeks involved in an archaeological dig around the perimeter of the Yeaton-Walsh house (shown below, from Strawbery Banke).  The aim of this project is to preserve as much of the artifacts around the dilapidating building as we can, to try to find objects to be used to more accurately date the house, and to find the builder’s trench.  (All before the builders come to repair the house to its state in the turn of the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries.)

Even in the first few days I was amazed to discover bags and bags of ceramics of various patterns and manufacture, marbles, a pocket knife, thimbles, buttons, and most interesting to me, the budding biological anthropologist, many, many pig and cow bones (from femurs, to ribs, to vertebrae).  The team and I even found several whole pig mandibles and several teeth (an example of a pig tooth is shown below).  These findings spoke to me where the patterned ceramics and glass bottles spoke to others.

The Yeaton-Walsh house at Strawbery Banke was mainly lived in by Irish immigrants (multiple generations of the Walsh family were the longest to live there), and the amount of pig bones in particular interested me the most in understanding of the people who lived there over a hundred years ago.  The image below shows a map of Strawbery Banke’s houses color-coded by where the families originated, whether from Italy, Canada, Russia (Jews), or in this case, Ireland.  It shows that the Irish were housed in several of the houses in the early 1900s, and are shown as light blue.

The backyard of the Yeaton-Walsh held many butchered bones, and in the course of my research I discovered pig to have been a large component of Irish food, whether in Ireland or in America.  The lyrics of the songs above are a combination of making fun of the various immigrants to this country, grouping them by what they preferred to eat as a clear a category as what they wore, looked like, or practiced as a religion (in the case of O’Brien).  The other two examples are poetic lists that are filled with enough flavorful adjectives to make anyone understand the kinds of delicious foods these people might have eaten.  The Walshes were not wealthy, at least when they began to live at the house, but they are still an important example of how Irish people lived and ate, as mealtimes, especially to tight-knit families, are often the most important times of all (Smith 2007, pp 111).

Works Cited

Clifford, S. (1992). Ballads of a Bogman. Cork, Mercier Press.

Crotty, P., Ed. (2010). The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry. London, Penguin Books Ltd.

Smith, Andrew F. (2007). The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink
Oxford University Press. pp 111.