Ingestion in Ireland: The Real Price of Good Food

I’m really hungry. It’s half three, as they say around here, and the last thing I ate was a Nature Valley granola bar. I’m regretting my choice of snacks—especially because Irish food is fantastic.

Even subjected to my amateur preparation, the Atlantic salmon I roasted two nights ago was astonishing. After one bite I sat and looked at what remained, wishing I had double the portion. Equally rich and tender: the headline ingredient of the lamb stew at the Brazen Head pub in Dublin. 

It’s not just the fish and meats, though I could go on about the bacon. Ireland is a country of free-range livestock and traditional farming practices, and the simple superiority of those methods shines through in all of its domestically sourced foods. The Brussels sprouts I bought at the English Market (which, despite the name, is a collection of local vendors) restore glory to that vegetable’s sullied reputation. If you’ve never tried quality Irish butter, you have yet to understand the true potential of toast. 

And, yes, there are the inevitable potatoes, but even those are a cut above what you’d find in the States. At the Paragon Bar in Skibbereen, I ate French fries so flavorful they could have been an entrée in themselves. 

But despite the national culinary bounty on offer, most of my food purchases are still student staples: yogurt and muesli for breakfast, PB&J and a banana for lunch, the aforementioned Nature Valley bars for snacks. I’ve tried to limit my finer meals to dinner. The reason for this self-imposed gastronomic asceticism? In a word, money—good food doesn’t come cheap. 

That’s true in the United States, too, but the awkward economics of study abroad make the cost of fine fare more noticeable. An unfavorable conversion rate means that Pomona’s stipend is quickly starting to look like a Euro-pittance, and I can’t legally work while I’m here. I’ve got no source of income for the next three months, and if I end up at an internship this summer I might not see a paycheck again until September.

I’ve got enough saved up from summer jobs and work-study that I don’t need to worry about the technicalities of Irish personal bankruptcy law. I won’t go broke from buying Irish sausage and fresh eggs for breakfast every so often, or eating lunch at one of the local cafes once in a while. But the knowledge that I’m spending without earning makes it tough to feel comfortable with regular indulgence.

Thus, in the interest of not spending my life’s savings on salmon, I’ve been trying to placate my stomach with inexpensive—and correspondingly blander—options. Against the temptations of such a savory smorgasbord, however, my willpower is crumbling like the scones from the co-op on the bank of the River Lee. 

Yesterday, I bought a chocolate muffin after class. It was overpriced and not particularly Irish in origin, but it tasted great. And that muffin got me thinking, as I walked back to the listless loaf of sandwich bread in my apartment, that maybe I’ve got it all wrong—maybe food as good as Ireland’s should be worth coming home with a sizably smaller savings account.

The question seems to resonate beyond my immediate concerns. Lately, while shopping for groceries, I find myself weighing my life’s priorities in my head: Favor long-term independence, or lean toward immediate experiences? I expected to do some soul-searching on my semester abroad, but not while buying cheese.

Like so many questions, the answer probably lies somewhere in the foggy middle ground—a compromise between 30-cent granola bars and Hassett’s Bakery crème brûlée, between pasta unintentionally al dente and Lennox’s beer-battered cod. And the simplest solution—all things in moderation—may well turn out to be the best. But the process of finding that balance still feels important. It’s a mundane drama of self-definition, with my cupboard shelves for a stage.

If I come home with a significantly lighter wallet, blame the farmers and the fishermen of Ireland. Blame them, and bless them, for the irresistible enchantment of their beautiful food. Just one more class to go today, and then I’m running home to cook the rest of my salmon.

Sam McLaughlin PO ’16 is a politics major studying at University College Cork in Ireland. He still remembers a sandwich he ate in Colorado five years ago.