For generations, perhaps scarred by the shared memory of starvation, Irish eating habits were simply about having enough. Food was plain, but plentiful: steaming piles of potatoes, well-boiled vegetables (often home-grown) and meat from the local butcher.
But in the last 20 years Ireland has become a different country.
With a population shifting from country to urban living, people side-stepped the back-breaking, uncertain, 24-7 world of farming for life in the suburbs, a 9-5 job and knowing exactly how much they would earn at the end of the month. Home cooked foods became unfashionable: who had time to slave over a hot stove when you could just zap a ready-made lasagne in the microwave? The further we got from the dirt and sweat of food production, the less we cared about how it was done, with price being the main issue. Until, of course, that food turned out to be tainted.
For anyone who is at all interested in what we eat, Basket Case is unmissable. The authors – RTÉ journalists Philip Boucher-Hayes and Suzanne Campbell – paint an alarming picture of how we have handed over control of our nation’s food to profit-hungry supermarkets. It is a comprehensive, if depressing, assessment of Irish eating habits, from farmers’ markets to German discount supermarkets, convenience foods to dioxin scares.
Well written, entertaining and educational (although I could have done without the David McWilliams-style Flash Paddy and inner culchie tags) this is the kind of book that will act as a wake up call for anyone who thinks that the farmers have it easy. The low price you pay today in the supermarket for your food may not be the price you end up paying in the long run when the race to the bottom drives farmers out of business and the food supply chain lengthens.
The authors do offer a tiny glimmer of hope. For consumers, their advice is to shop around the outer edges of the supermarket for real food – vegetables, fruit, dairy, meat and fish. For the industry as a whole, they argue that a food industry crisis could be prevented by state involvement and more support for quality Irish food production. It remains to be seen if anyone is listening.
Basket Case will appeal to any fans of Felicity Lawrence, Michael Pollan and Joanna Blythman. An essential read.
Basket Case: What’s Happening to Ireland’s Food? by Philip Boucher-Hayes and Suzanne Campbell is published by Gill & Macmillan.