Because we live in houses, away from the public glare, it is dangerous to assume that our own family idiosyncrasies are replicated in houses across the community. It was only when I got married, for instance, that I discovered that most families had their Shrove Tuesday pancakes after dinner, rather than instead of dinner, as practised by my “careful-with-money” parents.
So I am totally unsure about how common is the practice of enjoying a traditional Irish Sunday dinner – a roast with potatoes and vegetables, with family members sitting around the table, arguing about who is going to do the washing up afterwards.
Certainly I am aware of the current trend towards going out for a carvery lunch on a Sunday. We do it ourselves on occasion, and always have cause to comment on the number of people eating out and wondering if anybody cooks on a Sunday any more. Of course, other families are probably glancing at us and thinking the same thing, so I have taken to wearing a sandwich board explaining that we normally dine at home on the Sabbath.
At this juncture, I would hasten to point out that I am in no way sitting in moral judgement on the pub diners. With the length of time it takes to prepare the vegetables, cook the roast, organise the dessert, eat the damned thing and tidy up afterwards, that’s half of your Sunday gone, leaving precious little time for anything else. Not to mention of course, the stress of potatoes that break up into mush before you put them in the oven, gravy that steadfastly refuses to thicken, broccoli that kids turn their noses up at and wine that ends up on the tablecloth.
With all the above, it is natural that many people are prepared to spend a few pounds on a Sunday to avoid all the hassle of a time-consuming traditional dinner. And Dublin 15 has an abundance of hostelries catering for this demand. From Ashtown to Dunboyne, the area is well-served with excellent carveries that serve high-quality Sunday dinners without the seemingly obligatory family arguments.
For ourselves, though, we normally have the Sunday dinner at home. I prepare the vegetables and then my wife cooks the dinner, while I hover around, handing over ladles and wooden spoons with the same alacrity as an intern handing scalpels to a surgeon. Through years of practice, we have settled comfortably into our respective roles, though I often forget about drinks until everybody is sitting down.
What makes the task harder, though, is that whereas it is always easy enough to pick up a chicken of suitable size, the other meat options sometimes suffer from serious down-sizing. Supermarkets in particular seem to think that their meat-eating customers have tiny appetites. Lumps of pork are minuscule, cuts of lamb are puny and most corned beef cuts could fit into your pocket, if you had such a desire. Is there no demand out there for decent sized cuts of meat, except chez the Goulding household?
Of course, there is so much I do not know about cooking meat. If I buy two small chunks of corned beef and cook them together in a pot, should l do them for twice the normal cooking time? I have no idea. Physics was never my strong point at school and I never could figure the one about the two trains travelling in the same direction with different speed capacities.
The different cuts of meat would baffle anyone except the experienced cattle slaughterer. What on earth is a Housekeeper’s Cut and can you still buy it if you are not a housekeeper? Does a shoulder have a big bone in the middle of it? Why would anyone want to buy it if it has? Which cuts are susceptible to veins of greasy fat? This is the sort of thing they should be teaching in school, rather than how many elements you can balance on a periodic table.
Judging by the queues at the only butchers in the Blanchardstown Centre, I suspect that a lot of people are turning away from supermarkets in the quest for a nice joint. (Here I must explain to any teenager reading this that a joint is the word used to describe a cut of meat) But the very fact that butchers are so busy means that the nervous or unsure meat-purchaser feels very much intimidated by the superior knowledge of the aproned and blood-splattered master craftsman behind the counter.
I want a nice piece of lamb about 1500g in weight. Shoulder or rump, sir? I don’t know, what’s the difference? Different cuts, sir. Do they have bones? Sometimes sir, depends which piece you get. Which is the least expensive? Shall I get you a nice piece of rump sir? Very good. 1800 grammes, is that okay? Well, it’s a bit big. I can cut a piece off sir. There. 1350 grammes. Is that okay? Well, it’s a bit small…
When we lived in Stoneybatter, there was a butcher called Peadar who knew all his customers by name and knew exactly what they wanted. If he told you he had a nice piece of sirloin, you believed him, because you trusted him. It was meat shopping made easy. Sadly it’s not so easy to find a friendly family butcher nowadays and the onus is now very much on the customer to know their own mind. Which I, for one, don’t.
Without a Peadar to nurture and guide his customers, traditional Sunday lunchers are reduced to sifting despairingly through ever-diminishing cuts of meat in the local supermarket or playing Russian roulette with the local victualler, hoping that their interpretation of “a nice bit of lamb” coincides with his. This is not progress. This is just another frustrating by-product of the modern age that we must struggle to overcome. No wonder the local hostelries do a roaring trade on a Sunday.
Or maybe we should just simplify things and turn vegetarian?