Monday, March 15, 2010

St. Patrick's Day Special: Vegetarianism and the Potato Famine

As an Irish-American, I have extremely mixed feelings about St. Patrick's Day. In my childhood, it was one of my favorite holidays: my Irish dancing school had a special feis (pronounced fesh, a type of Irish dancing contest), I liked getting to eat soda bread for breakfast, and then we went to Mass, and after that we ate a big meal while listening to Clancy Brothers records and talking about dead Irish relatives. It was fun in the quiet way such things often are, a chance to learn something about another part of the world, as well as my own family and roots.

Nowadays, I sort of dread it. Some of this is due to personal issues (my Irish grandmother died a few days after St. Patrick's Day), but also because somehow St. Patrick's Day mutated into Mardi Gras II when I wasn't looking, and now the popular view of St. Patrick's Day is a day where people can drink themselves stupid and otherwise behave like total assholes. (Thembi of What Would Thembi Do? explains it very well, even though I strongly disagree with her "we're all American, white people are just playing with having another ethnicity" conclusion.)

This perception, needless to say, really annoys me, and makes me wonder how the Cajuns really feel about Mardi Gras.

What does this have to do with vegetarianism? I've decided to make my St. Patrick's Day post into a sort of take-back-the-night post. We're going to talk about a vegetarian heroine of the Potato Famine: Asenath Nicholson.

Asenath Nicholson was a native Vermonter and a Congregationalist, admittedly not an obvious choice to become the subject of an Irish history lesson. She was a follower of Sylvester Graham, inventor of the famous Graham Cracker, and a nutrition nut. The 19th century exists in the popular imagination as "the good old days", a time of quaint technology and unquestioned social values and piety. This imaginary 19th century couldn't be more different from the reality: the 19th century was a time of huge social upheaval and constant technological advancement. It was an era of utopian ideals and much social experimentation that extended up to the first wave of feminism and including free love (at the Oneida Colony in New York State) and a meatless diet.*

Asenath Nicholson went to Ireland in 1844 armed with Graham's philosophies, right before the worst of the famine hit Ireland. She came to collaborate with the Hibernian Society in Dublin and the Belfast Ladies' Association for the Relief of Irish Destitution, her goal was to distribute Bibles and food to the peasantry in the countryside. She was appalled by what she found there: the anti-Catholicism and anti-Irishness of many of the relief societies throttled attempts at food distribution, and millions starved in the street while the food either rotted in the warehouses or was distributed in an indigestible condition.

Before the famine, the Irish peasant diet consisted of about fourteen pounds of potatoes a day. During the famine, the landlords tried to distribute a limited amount of badly ground Indian corn to defray starvation and supplement what rotten potatoes and other weeds people were scrounging to eat, but most Irish stomachs could not keep this badly ground corn down and so people starved regardless. Asenath Nicholson insisted that the relief agencies she worked with both double-grind the corn to make it edible, and show the people to whom the corn was being given how to cook and eat that corn. She was also famous (or infamous, depending on what your business was) for condemning "wasting" grain in the production of alcohol and in the feeding of large herds of cattle, insisting that simply giving people the grain to eat was far more efficient than giving it to cows that would later be slaughtered. A novel idea at the time!

Asenath Nicholson stayed in Ireland continuing in her relief work through Black 47, the worst year of the potato famine, and returned to New York in 1848. Sadly, she died of typhoid several years later, in 1852.

*Notice I didn't mention abolitionism? There was a consistant abolitionist movement from the early Colonial era onward. The first anti-slavery tract was written in the late 17th century by a group of Quakers, and of course, the free black communities always worked towards the abolition of slavery.


Asenath Nicholson: University College Cork, Multitext Project in Irish History

Ireland for Visitors: Black 47

Great Famine (Ireland)

Haber, Barbara (2002). From Hardtack to Homefries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals
The Free Press
New York, New York

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