Saturday, December 6, 2008

This Week's Blinding Thought (III)

Some more from William Cobbett (see here), this time on the subject of potatoes. He is discussing how the 'umble shpud has come to replace bread as the staple diet of labourers in the early 19th century. While I find his style of writing amusing (if one ignores his contempt for the Irish), when taken in its historical context it actually makes a certain amount of sense. After all, unlike workers of that period, how many of us are wholly dependant on food we grow ourselves? However, he neglects to mention that Ireland's dependence on potatoes (along with Scotland, which also suffered greatly from the blight) was caused by widespread deprivation rather than innate laziness; they were the only crops which would grow in abundance on the tiny patches of land the Irish had for their own use. (Click here if you wish to see a mighty crop of these evil tubers. Mr. Cobbett must be rolling in his grave at the thought that the UN declared 2008 to be the International Year of the Potato.)

"Many labourers, especially in the West of England, use potatoes instead of bread to a very great extent. And I find from the same evidence, that it is the custom to allot to labourers "a potato ground" in part payment of their wages. This has a tendency to bring English labourers down to the state of the Irish, whose mode of living, as to food, is but one remove from that of the pig, and of the ill-fed pig too...
"Leaving out the slovenly and beastly habits engendered amongst the labouring classes by constantly lifting their principal food at once out of the earth to their mouths, by eating without the necessity of implements other than the hands and the teeth, and by dispensing with everything requiring skill in the preparation of the food, and requiring cleanliness in its consumption or preservation; leaving these out of the question ... we shall find, that, in mere quantity of food, that is to say, nourishment, bread is the preferable diet...
"Suppose a bushel of potatoes to be cooked every day in order to supply the place of the bread, then we have nine hundred boilings of the pot, unless cold potatoes be eaten at some of the meals; and in that case, the diet must be cheering indeed! For it must be a considerable time before English people can be brought to eat potatoes in the Irish style; that is to say, scratch them out of the earth with their paws, toss them into a pot without washing, and when boiled turn them out on a dirty board, and then sit round that board, peel the skin and dirt from one at a time and eat the inside. Mr. Curwen was delighted with "Irish hospitality" because the people there receive no parish relief; upon which I can only say, that I wish him the exclusive benefit of such happiness...
"I trust that we shall soon hear no more of those savings which the labourer makes from the use of potatoes; I hope we shall, in the words of DR DRENNAN, "leave Ireland to her lazy root," if she choose still to adhere to it. It is the root also of slovenliness, filth, misery, and slavery; its cultivation has increased in England with the increase of the paupers...
"This was written in 1821. Now (1823) we have had the experience of 1822, when for the first time the world saw a considerable amount of a people plunged into famine, at a moment when the government of a nation declared food to be abundant! Yes, the year 1822 saw Ireland in that state; saw the people of whole parishes receiving the extreme unction preparatory to yielding up their breath for want of food; and this while large exports of meat and flour were taking place in that country. But horrible as this was, disgraceful as it was to the name of Ireland, it was attended with this good effect; it brought out, from many Members of Parliament (in their places), and from the public in general, the acknowledgement, that the misery and degradation of the Irish were chiefly owing to the use of the potato as the almost sole food of the people."

4 comments:

Claudia said...

Thank you for sending us to William Cobbett, a most interesting man, though a racist. I'll predict he will be read a lot in those difficult economic times.

I know quite a bit about the noble potato, as I married a British-Irish, way back. The dual nationality is used when it's good to be born in England (if it is????) but more fun to claim Irish ancestry for all occasions which require an Irish whiskey celebration.

My first surprise, as a young bride, was having to cook 30 potatoes, instead of two, for every meal. No bother really considering I never had to bake bread which I considered a nuisance in those days. Heard so much about the potato famine that I became a bit paranoid. Though living in the New World, where fertile lands always produced more than needed, I always had enough potatoes on hand to survive at least 2 years. At my Divorce Party, I gave bags of spuds to all my friends. Didn't divorce the Irish part of the man, but the unsufferable Britishness. But, as Kipling would say, that's another story...

I have quite a bit of respect for Mr.Jeating's crop, except his potatoes have human qualities (even sensuousness) which would make me hesitate to drop any of them in boiling water...

Fascinating subject. Thanks for sharing.Sorry to have missed the tea post. Having been part of the British diplomatic world, I could have discussed at lenght, the proper way to hold a cup... if you have the right blood in your veins.

A Doubtful Egg said...

Your ex- could eat 28 potatoes at one sitting? (I assume you were eating two.) I am stunned!
I love the sheer variety of organic vegetables, to the point where, like yourself, I feel it's almost a shame to consume them (especially when compared to their bland and dreary siblings in the supermarkets). But then there's the taste... My partner and I have a big garden, and are thinking about putting in a plot next year (after figuring out the best way of making it hound-proof; our dog has already done damage to our herb garden with his furious digging). As a confirmed city boy, I can't wait to don wellies and straw hat before getting the spade out!
I'm not a huge fan of tea, and the only reason I tend to drink it is that if I drink coffee after seven I'll be awake half the night. And Mr. Cobbett's recommended alternative, homemade beer, is not one open to me...
Thanks for the comments, and forgive the lateness of reply, but if someone leaves a lengthy comment, I prefer to reply in kind!

Claudia said...

Oh! I said thirty potatoes to indicate a great number. A bit like: I told you one hundred times...When in fact it could have been more or less...

I never eat more than one potato a meal. More often: none.

I wish you luck with your garden. I can only have a balcony garden but I get great satisfaction at growing my own herbs, and a few flowers. It's combined with my love of books.

As Cicero says:

Si apud bibliothecam hortulum hobes nihil deerit.

If you have a library near a small garden, what else do you need.

Claudia said...

Also thank you for acknowledging my comment. Never feel guilty for not doing so. To read an interesting post, and to be able to express my appreciation, is pleasure enough.

Much better than to speak at a TV screen with good or bad language, according to the mood the program created...