Ireland's greatest novel, Ulysses, opens with a critique of Irish food. Early on June 16, 1904, Stephen Dedalus and Buck Mulligan are eating breakfast in Martello Tower when Buck compliments the wares of an old milk-woman. "If we could only live on good food like that," Buck says. "We wouldn't have the country full of rotten teeth and rotten guts."
It took more than a century, but Ireland is finally starting to live on good food.
In Dublin, long more famous for drinking than eating, the best and often only option for eating out was stodgy bar fare. "Fine dining" meant stopping at the local pub for a pint and a pie -- like the traditional shepherd's pie served at Michael Finnegan's, for instance, just blocks from where Joyce set his Dalkey School scene.
Today, though, "Irish cuisine" is no longer an oxymoron. The nation at last has found the modern faith of Foodie-ism. In Dublin especially, food has finally become more than just a means to sop up ale and whiskey. Today the city's long, low, clean blocks of multicolored Georgian facades burst with new flavors and fresh attitudes. Dubliners have embraced eating out as not only a valid form of entertainment, but as an important statement of personal ethics and style.
Credit the Celtic Tiger. The unprecedented economic boom that started in 1995 and lasted a decade radically reshaped the nation, transforming the Irish Republic from one of the poorest nations in Western Europe to one of its richest.
Culturally, the shift was tectonic. Doubly so for the gastronome.
For the first time in Ireland's epic, often tragic history, the island became a place that people moved to, rather than somewhere to escape from. Thousands of Irish citizens living abroad came home, bringing new appetites back from London, Liverpool, or Chicago. More dramatically, the homogenous, parochial little nation saw its first-ever large scale waves of global immigration -- from India, Vietnam, the Levant, and especially the newly-Unionized states of Eastern Europe. A particularly large flock came from also-predominantly-Catholic Poland, opening the specialty grocers Polski Sklep and Polonez which dot the city selling pickled versions of anything humans can consume.
Newly affluent and worldly, Ireland's menu choices bloomed. Diners began demanding meals of a a more varied palette, with more attractive presentation, made with fresher and more ethically-sourced ingredients.
"Ten years ago, it was hard to find sushi anywhere," said Polly Kilburn. A redhead drinking white wine at The Bar With No Name, Polly called herself "an unemployed graphic artist," letting a single strand of crimson hair fall across a single green eye. "Now you can get it anywhere, she said of the sushi. "Even at the grocer's!"
Irish food, in short, got globalized. Today the hero of Ulysses needn't feast on "the inner organs of beasts and fowls." Leopold Bloom could forgo the giblet soup and nutty gizzards for a healthier breakfast of, say, a bran muffin and the championship-winning cappuccino at Third Floor Espresso.
For lunch, Leopold can skip Davy's Pub, still standing at 21 Duke Street, for the questionable charms of a Gorgonzola cheese sandwich with "feety savour." Instead Leopold could lunch on kimchi at the Hophouse, replete with a sweet rice cake and fried lotus root dessert. He could cross the River Liffy, and hit the Temple Bar district for the tandoori-style cooking at Monty's of Katmandu.
Or Leopold might take his midday meal at the 3rd Still Restaurant, in the Old Jameson Distillery building. He could have the whiskey-infused, smoked wild salmon and crab claws, served with thick, fresh slices of Ireland's ubiquitous soda bread. He could watch the businessmen munch minced Connemara lamb kofta kebabs from wooden skewers while tourists file in to see how liquor was made in 1790.
Those tourists, however, cannot see any whiskey made today.
For decades, the spirit has been conjured far from the city, at the Old Midleton Distillery, deep in County Cork. A three-hour train ride southwest from Dublin through green velvet-coated, sheep-speckled hills, the trip to Cork feels like a descent into the Ireland of songs and dreams. Here is the land of Celts and Blarney, part-Hollywood fantasy, part grandmotherly legend. Here is the near-mythic Ireland that grips the American soul -- as the half-imagined repository of an ancient past for a people without one. Here, too, is where our nation is still mythic -- gleaming to Irish eyes with the promise of golden streets. With no other people do we share such an intimate bond -- some 40 million of us claim Irish blood -- or feel such unbridled affection.
Cork city, the county seat, does have a cosmopolitan glaze. There's a smattering of yoga studios, Wi-Fi equipped coffee shops, and wine bars on Oliver Plunkett street. The mojito can be found, and foodie-friendly meals can be had, like the butternut and feta gratin with polenta, caramelized onions, and sun-dried tomatoes at Market Lane.
But the globalized veneer falls off a half-block away. Inside the tiny Welcome Inn, a dark, cloistered, wood-paneled Irish pub that's older than most states in the U.S., a fast-talking barman named Paraic O'Regan tells long, lyrical stories half in Gaelic. With its taps and bottles gleaming in amber light, and walls covered by yellowed photographs of smiling old men in tweed, the Welcome Inn looks and feels so exactly and authentically like you would expect an Irish pub to look and feel that being there can inspire the uniquely postmodern sense of eerie dislocation that comes from feeling like an actual place is too much like a theme-park reproduction of itself.
Emerging from Cork, returning to the bustle of Dublin is like a return to waking life. The great cities of the world form their own kind of pseudo-nation. Like airports, they often have more in common with each other than they do with the surrounding countryside, and there's a kind of generic comfort in that familiarity for the traveler. An American soon heading home, for instance, could prepare his palette with a dinner at the Burger King near Eden Quay. A costlier dinner for beef lovers, but one more in keeping with Ireland's new culinary attitudes, would be the poached Hereford fillet at Chapter One. A Michelin Star restaurant below the Dublin' Writers Museum, where artifacts include Joyce's piano, Chapter One is forging in the smithy of their kitchens the uncreated cuisine of their reshaped nation. The menu is proudly, almost aggressively Irish, fraught with dishes like black pudding and sweetbreads, and a rare-breed pork loin plate with pickled thistle.
Yet the spices are global. There are flowery mountains of Andalusian saffron and rivers of olive oil, and each morsel from the kitchen is crafted with the near-obsessive emphasis on fresh, local, seasonal, and organic cookery that characterizes the best of modern dining anywhere on Earth. All of it, presented on white linen by candlelight, demonstrates that the Celtic Tiger may have turned paper, but the changes it wrought on Ireland's appetites will endure. For the long-term effects of those changes on Irish teeth and guts, however, only time will tell.