Flavin’s Corner

Boiling Dinner

St. Patrick’s festivals in Dublin and other large Irish cities were cancelled or postponed this year due to the foot-and-mouth epidemic.  Unlucky tourists taking the disease home with them, scabby sheep in a flock enjoying a comrade, and all of that.  As the celebration of St. Patty’s Day usually mandates the “wearing of the green,” a consumption of great amounts of Guinness Extra Stout, and a repast of the rustic and sensual nuances of a fine boiled dinner, one might wonder if boiling meat is sufficient to kill foot-and-mouth disease.  It is, and has been for some time.  However, as an extra precaution and to be on the safe side, I’d recommend even greater amounts of Guinness!

Fire may have been used by H. erectus as early as a million years ago and some have speculated that this technology allowed the species to move out of Africa.  Besides the utilities of light and heat, at some later point fire began to be used for cooking.  With the beginning of various soaking technologies applied to legumes and grains immediately before the so-called agricultural revolution, c.7000 BCE, it may be assumed the boiling of foodstuffs (including meat) followed shortly afterwards.  Barbecue is tasty, but there’s nothing like a good stick-to-your-ribs stew!  Unfortunately, ancient written records which offer recipes are scarce.

One extant source, the Torah, describes certain dietary restrictions involving the boiling of meat (Exodus 23:19; 34:26, Deuteronomy 14:21).  “Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother’s milk” has long troubled investigators and guesses as to the impetus of the proscription continue to this day.  That the tradition arose as a reaction to non-Hebrew (read: pagan) cults ritually stewing an animal in its biological mother’s milk remains an unsupported argument, lacking both documentary and physical evidence.  Though “kid” specifically refers to a young he-goat, later Jewish teachers interpreted this as an injunction against the combining of any meat with dairy products.  Medieval Jewish kabbalists believed meat (or flesh) is the highest form of development in the world outside of God’s Kingdom, that milk is the essential developmental nutrient, and combining the two could be perceived as an attempt to create “superflesh,” apparently a mutant abomination before God.  So, cheeseburgers and pepperoni and cheese pizzas are seditious!

Recent dating attempts of much of the Hebrew Bible, such as R. E. Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? (New York: Summit Books, 1988) argue for a rather late composition, c.700-500 BCE.  Such a date needn’t assume an ex nihilo emergence of the Hebrews.  Indeed, archaeological evidence suggests at least one major dietary restriction (the avoidance of pork) as early as Iron Age I, c.1150-900 BCE, in certain highland Canaanite areas which became the kingdom of Israel.  Despite subsequent codifications and modifications of traditions, this “law” opens the door for other equally early dietary restrictions, such as boiling meat in milk.

The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts, by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman (New York: The Free Press, 2001), politely challenges the widely held acceptance of scripture as unbiased and accurate history.  Their model proposes several distinct cycles of transition between settled agriculture and semi-nomadic pastoralists in Canaan, probably due to environmental and foreign political influences, which allowed and facilitated the formation of the early sister-states of Israel and Judah.  As wandering about grasslands and the desert often means being away from water, cooking with milk was (and remains) a necessity.  I would guess a “law” prohibiting the boiling of meat in milk may have been first implemented as part of a government program  to encourage urbanization.  Yeah, there’s nothing like getting folks to break from old habits like a biblical injunction!

As dairy products are not required in the cooking of an Irish (or New England) boiled dinner, those keeping kosher shouldn’t have a problem with it.  Also, though the Irish often use Guinness like milk, pouring bottles on the oats of prized racehorses, as well as making it readily available to their seniors, Guinness is non-dairy and more like liquid bread than anything else. [Note: Though a halal version of a boiled dinner would work for Muslims, the Guinnesses would be haram.  Also, a vegan interpretation with a tofu brisket may be possible, but should be left in the realm of aberrant imagination.]

The celebration of the feast day of St. Patrick is meant to honor the Apostle of Ireland.  That he’s said to have been born in Wales (or at Kilpatrick, Scotland) and is thought to be buried in Glastonbury, England, is petty trivia.  We grant him credit for driving the snakes out of Ireland, and for challenging the Druids and baptizing Irish chiefs and princes.  As there weren’t any snakes in Ireland in the first place, modern suggestions of historical metaphor have come forward with the snakes representing either the pagan Druidic cult or a heretical gnostic Christian sect.  That he brought the Church to Eire is a given and the primary reason for great amounts of Guinness on his feast day. 

It’s a pity so many domesticated food animals have to be slaughtered, but they were destined for the culinary shortcut anyway.  The latest outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease comes in the midst of an ongoing Mad Cow crisis (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE), some of us are still paying attention to those reports of the flesh-eating bacteria (Necrotizing Fasciitis), and there’s the uncomfortable occasional outbreak of Ebola or another deadly hemorrhagic fever.  All in all, a good tradition, this boiling of dinner!  Many a grill has suffered little nasty things to survive deep in the flesh, but a few hours in a bubbling vat will surely end the discussion.  Boil the bastards!  Seriously, though, I hope and pray the little nasty things don’t up the aggression by increasing their attacks, as a future of fish, bell-bottoms, and wearing a Michael Jackson-ish surgical mask would require amounts of Guinness that makes my bladder quiver to contemplate!

Guessing At Dinner, RDF 2001.

As always, may Erin go braless,

Return to main page