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food during the potato famine

I am putting together a family cook book and would like to include foods from my relatives that left Ireland during the potato famine. They walked across the country and then sailed for Durham, England for work. I know they must have had little to eat and for sure no refrigeration while walking. Does anyone have any idea of what they would have eaten as they left Ireland? My relatives came from Sligo. Would they have carried tea?

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  1. (Moderators -- please don't delete this! I'm just trying to be helpful and this advice is pertinent to anyone interested in food history)

    Hi klmsfd --
    I think your question would be better addressed with another group. Chow tends to be more restaurant focused.

    I would suggest subscribing to the free Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS) e-mail listserv and posting the question there instead. It is a society made of food studies scholars and enthusiasts who would surely have an answer to your question.

    If you're in the US, you should also try contacting your local culinary historian organization. They can point you to local collections or internet sites that would be helpful for your research. You can Google this information.

    Hope this helps!

    1. I don't have recipes for you but wanted to say I love what you are doing.

      I'm doing a similar but maybe less ambitious thing. Having family members contribute their favorite recipes that Grandma made, or that reminds them of her and other family members. Mixed in with current favorites. And things we used to love in the 60s and 70s (sukiyaki, anyone?) Along with some old handwritten recipes from my great grandmother that she would have made on the wood-fired stove.

      To be illustrated with photos of everyone.

      There are so many services now that will cheaply do books like this for you. I think this will be a great way to connect everyone and share some family history too.

      1. I could be wrong, and you may want to do more research, but when tea was introduced in England/Ireland, it was very expensive and solely the province of the rich. You might want to check the dates to see how the famine intersects with the availability of tea to those who might have left during the famine. Irish soda bread comes to mind as a possibility, by the way, though I've not made it.

        1 Reply
        1. re: MMRuth

          From "The Land That Thyme Forgot":

          "By the middle of the nineteenth century it [tea] was becoming affordable, and increasingly popular among the working classes." The author writes that in the 1820s, tea began to be planted in India, which made it more available and "the social pattern of tea drinking began to change."

          A quick check of Wikipedia indicates that the famine was between 1845 - 1849/1852.

        2. From what I've read there wasn't much at all to eat in Ireland, except for whatever might have been together in the occasional community gruel pot. If what I've read is accurate those who left Ireland for the English coast had a short trip by sea however, once they arrived, it was no short walk to places like Durham. But many of the Irish did travel inland, away from Liverpool's over crowded conditions, to avoid deportation. My heart goes out to your ancestors who would have been involved in such a tragic adventure. I haven't read of any ships leaving Ireland that docked anywhere in England other than Liverpool. Otherwise the arrivals would have been in Scotland or South Wales. I would venture a guess that the Irish ate whatever they could find, most of which had to come from the charitable actions of townspeople along the route to their destination(s).
          If you read these pages you may find some clues to suggest where you might look for your answers.
          http://www.historyplace.com/worldhist...

          3 Replies
          1. re: todao

            My maternal grandfather hailed from Sligo, as well (Manor Hamilton). The potato famine was devastating, but not absolute: There was enough to feed the few, just not the many as in years past. The blight continues to the present day, but some growers still manage a harvest.

            1. re: todao

              On reading the OP's question, which I think is a fascinating one, I also checked out this site. It says, "The Irish in the countryside began to live off wild blackberries, ate nettles, turnips, old cabbage leaves, edible seaweed, shellfish, roots, roadside weeds and even green grass."

              The tragedy was that alternative foods harvested by the Irish such as oats were protected by armed guards and shipped to England; and the Irish needed the proceeds to pay rent. Additionally the food from soup kitchens as well as briefly-available corn meal that they called "Peel's Brimstone" was often indigestible by these people suffering from dysentery and starvation.

              1. re: Niblet

                It is probably a universal reaction to starvation.... to eat what you can find. I had a friend who survived WWII in Holland. She said they ate stuff growing in fields that to older people remembered was edible. When that wasn't enough they tried the stuff they hoped was OK. That was not sufficient to quiet there stomachs so to keep going so they filled up on wood shavings.
                I do believe it is good to teach your children the things that are edlible and you find growing wild. Use caution in these modern days, but they should know. My poor "children" have eaten all sorts of things and they lived to be adults. One even had to resort to what she remembered from her childhood. Early spring when cattails are pencil thin try them cooked like ears of corn and buttered. You never know when it will be your turn.

            2. I've heard stories of people eating grass out of desperation. I'd say anything they'd find growing along the way.

              1. I'm currently reading a charming bio of Alexis Soyer, the victorian celebrity chef. He modernised soup kitchens that feed the hungry. (I haven't gotten too far yet, but I think these soup kitchens became more important during the Crimean war?) This book also describes his encouraging of the hungry Irish to eat local produce- like take advantage of the local fish and sea greens.

                1 Reply
                1. re: relizabeth

                  Which was tough considering the British didn't allow them on the beaches.

                2. Have you been to Cobh? It's the port town in Cork where most of the shipped sailed from. There's a statue there of a little girl who wound up being the first immigrant processed at Ellis Island. If you do a search you will probably find a lot of information from the museum there and maybe info on what they ate. Gotta warn you though, much of it is not pretty.