Yes, you read that correctly. While taking a jolly sojourn through the Temple Bar district with our friend and fellow Trinitite, Jess, we came across an old fashioned Sweet Shop called Aunty Nellie's. It had a full-front window full of row upon row of glittering jars full of sugary delights!
In we went without a second thought. (Hey, we're stressed grad students nearing the end of a tough semester away from home, facing a wall of succulent candy. What's there to think about?)
For the Harry Potter fans out there, let me just say that we basically walked into Honeydukes Sweet Shop! We were in a palace of pasties, grotto of gummies, a citadel of suckers, a bastion of bars! Hang it, we were in heaven!
The two chaps working behind the counter were extraordinarily helpful and cheery (obviously sampling the goods). As the greatest show tunes hits of Julie Andrews warbled over the speakers, they tweezed little samples for us to try and answered our many questions about the unfamiliar sweets we might never have seen before.
For example, I was struck by a bin full of white chocolate goodies that seemed to have been shaped like urns and crinkled up last-wills-and testaments. I asked about the need for funeral candy, which they explained, after a lot of laughter, was actually fish (what I thought were urns) and chips (the crinkled wills). In another example, Jess noted the huge glass jars of candy lining the shelves behind the counter. She ran to one like an eight-year-old with her own allowance and said with glee, "Are these big jars really just one euro and sixty cents?!" (She was ready to buy in bulk for that kind of bargain.) Unfortunately no, the price on the jar represented how much you could pay for a big handful of the treats inside.
Jess selected her favorites: watermelon gummy candies dusted with sugar. Zach found oddly shaped citrus gummies--also dusted in sugar--which packed enough zing to make your left foot kick up! I was about to make my selection when I saw them: candy eggs! Apparently, fried egg candies are a big hit in Ireland! We were obliged with a sample, and I went home with a bag full! The eggs, trust me, are super delicious! Creamy, and the yolk is like a sweet sort of jam on top!
But this was not a post meant to taunt our dear readers with dreams about delicious candy! It actually got me thinking about how we've learned a lot about Irish culture through our experiences of its food.
These discoveries go beyond the differences you might see at your typical tourist-fare restaurant, where one might think that the Irish eat nothing but stews with soda bread or fish and chips with mushy peas. No, it was actually outside of the restaurants where Zach and I have seen the telling differences between Irish and American food culture.
For example, at the grocery store, here are some of the things we have found (or not found):
Rather than chocolate syrup, there is "festive chocolate juice" or sometimes "dessert sauce,"
Jell-o comes pre-made in boxes. Yes, you can squeeze the little jell-o box and feel it all squish in side,
Cookies are biscuits,
Potato chips are "crisps,"
Bread comes in half-loaves and is about two inches taller than bread back home,
They. do. not. have. chocolate. chips.
Granola bars are called flap-jacks,
There is something called pancakes, and they come pre-mixed in big jars but the picture on the label looks nothing like a pancake....
Eggs are not refrigerated at the store,
Bacon is called "rashers" and it comes in slices as big as pork chops,
Peanut butter comes in a teeny-tiny jar and costs about $7.00,
Eggplants are called aubergines,
Zucchinis are called courgettes,
Spaghetti sauce is always called pasta pomodoro sauce,
Marshmallows exist, but they do not puff when heated...they disintegrate into sugary bits (this was an issue for our Thanksgiving dinner when we tried to make yams with marshmallows on top).
And none of this is meant to sound like complaints. The differences are fascinating to us. And when we can't find something we're used to back home, it entices us to be more creative in our meal-planning and more adventurous in our sampling of foreign food, or learning to appreciate it beyond the typical American expectation.
It all comes down to attitudes. One the one hand, what I can tell you from grocery shopping is that the Irish feel very strongly about buying from local providers. Items grown or made in Ireland are clearly marked and we are darndest to help support the local economy! (Plus, nothing tastes as good as Irish butter!) I would love to see a much more aggressive campaign for shopping local back home (in actual grocery stores, and not just in the Sunflower Markets or farmers markets).
On the other hand, they do not feel the same do-it-yourself zeal that Americans have when it comes to baking or cooking. In relation to that DIY attitude to food, I find that our deli sections are huge, and so are the aisles with baking goods and spices.
Here, there are entire aisles of Uncle Ben's pre-made rice bags and meal-boxes. The frozen food section is full of pre-made meals and lots of what we call TV dinners. The baking aisle is relatively sparse, and does not have the same kind of Betty Crocker section of quick-mix goodies. I might conjecture--as just a tourist passing through--that perhaps the Irish approach meals with a sense of convenience, but what I have learned living here is that kitchens in America are different from those in Ireland and across much of Europe. On average, they are small. We have an oven the size and height of a kindergartner! There are meals I simply cannot even attempt like I would back home.
But the differences are what we came here for, when you think about it. Otherwise, we would have picked a grad program back home in the States, where the marshmallows puff and the ovens are as big as NFL full-backs.
So as we come across these differences, we can revel in them knowing that not only do they help us to learn about cultures and attitudes other than our own, but also remind us of what we have to look forward to when we go home.