FOOD AND INTERCULTURAL ENCOUNTERS
IN IRISH HISTORY
Food provision and diet belong to the fundamental cultural patterns
that mark a society, and are often foregrounded as salient experiences
in intercultural encounters. This is also the case in one of the most
long-standing intercultural confrontations in European history: that
between Ireland and England. Some discursive thematizations of
Irish diet (whisky, dairy, potatoes, famine) are traced in this article,
both in their historical context and in their rhetorical function.
In intercultural encounters, the thing that stands out most saliently as a marker of cultural otherness is (apart from costume) diet. Eating is a universal biological given; Claude Lévi-Strauss has made us aware of the anthropological constant that what sets us apart from animals in our human self-perception is the fact that we process our food before ingesting it. On that basis, the differences in what we eat, and how we eat, stand out as a deep, fundamental part of the differentiation of human culture.1
One of the oldest and best-documented cross-cultural encounters in European history is the one between England and Ireland. From the twelfth century onwards, there is a rich and continuous record of English observations on the neighbouring isle as it was brought into English purview and under English domination. The starting point, Giraldus Cambrensis's Topographia Hiberniae, was written in 1188, when NormanWelsh barons undertook to assert in arms the suzerainty of the English
1 Lévi-Strauss 1964; also Tannahill 1973.