Ireland's leading food and culinary historian: How I found my love for food

KATE RYAN chats to Regina Sexton, Ireland’s leading food and culinary historian, about how her interest in food history was first nurtured and flourished, and her latest course offering at UCC
Ireland's leading food and culinary historian: How I found my love for food

Regina Sexton, programme manager of UCC’s Postgraduate Diploma in Irish Food Culture

THIS September will see the second cohort of students begin their studies for UCC’s Postgraduate Diploma in Irish Food Culture.

Applications for this unique two-year course, the only one of its kind in the country, are open until August 27, and there are still some places available.

I was one of the first intake of students in 2019, recently completed this year, and it was my first time back to third level education in over 20 years — proving decisively that it’s never too late to go back to school!

Regina Sexton is Ireland’s leading food and culinary historian with nearly three decades of research experience, and the Programme Manager for the Postgraduate Diploma in Irish Food Culture (PDIFC).

The process of creating PDIFC began in 2016, three years before welcoming the first intake of students. But what inspired Regina to devise the course in the first place; what does the course aim to achieve, and what came first for her — the love of history of the love of food?

“I can’t separate them, and they are largely to do with my dad. 

"I come from four generations of my family involved in food. They were bakers, originally from West Cork and moved to Cork city possibly after the famine, making bread when baker’s bread was taking off. There was always a food thing going on, but it was just something that was there.

“My dad was really interested in history, and he never drove a car — he always cycled. The two of us would cycle every day in the summer and go to historical sites and he loved nature, we swam in the river and picked flowers —it was idyllic, really! So, my interest in history came from him, and then the food thing was always going on in the background.”

Regina always wanted to study history.

“It was that or medicine”, she says; but it was a single lecture by Donnchadh Ó’Corráin on medieval food, part of a module of social history of medieval Ireland, that set her on her academic path as a culinary historian.

“I thought this was the best thing ever, just fantastic, and that this was what I wanted to do.”

After completing her studies, Regina left for the bright lights of Paris to teach English for a year near the Boulevard Haussman. Passing by the imposing L’église de la Madeleine each morning on the way to work, she was fascinated by the way the French displayed food in shop windows the same way as, back home in Cork, shops would display shoes, dresses, or tools.

“It was extraordinary, and I didn’t really know what was going on! Coming from Ireland to France in the ’90s and looking at their food culture — their dinner parties and so on — it was just extraordinary.

The PDIFC Group at Collins Barracks in Dublin
The PDIFC Group at Collins Barracks in Dublin

“Every morning I passed three shops, Hédiard selling fantastic spices and fruits, Fauchon, an exquisite confectioner and patisserie, and then beyond that was this teeny tiny shop that sold cheese all displayed beautifully in the window. All of those experiences seeped in.”

Regina returned from France in the early ’90s, became caretaker of Barryscourt Castle, and ran a café there during the summer. Here, she connected with the East Cork foodie circle, and began a lifelong friendship with Myrtle, Darina, and Ivan Allen from Ballymaloe.

She also returned to college to begin postgraduate studies that focused on cereals in early medieval Ireland.

“Darina had started writing two books at the time, one of which was The Festive Food of Ireland, and I worked with her on that. She recognised the value of my research work while other people thought it was ridiculous. At the time, it was the Ireland of fusion cuisine and people wanted to be looking out, not looking in.

“I started writing a column for the Irish Examiner every Saturday, called A Taste of the Past, which I did for 13 years, and then in 2001 I wrote a book called A Little History of Irish Food, and from that came an eight-part TV series on RTÉ.”

Around the same time, Myrtle Allen introduced Regina to Alan Davidson who, along with Paul Levy and Elizabeth David in England, established the Oxford Food Symposium on Food and Cookery. He invited her to the Symposium in 1996 where she presented her very first paper on the offal eating traditions of Cork, ‘I’d Ate it Like Chocolate’, which went on to win the Sophie Coe prize for food history writing.

Regina describes this period as being the time of an awakening in Irish food. A new wave of chefs 4— Derry Clarke, Ross Lewis, Paul Flynn, Kevin Thornton, Seamus O’Connell, etc; John and Sally McKenna publishing their Bridgestone (later McKenna’s) Guides and TV shows; as well as the small food producers gaining strength and influence — especially those from West Cork.

“It was new, and there was great interest and excitement to it. There were so many little things bubbling to the surface that, if you were interested in food at all, you were part of it.”

Regina was in that mix, making food history from a social perspective, her area of expert research, something that had never been done before. Having spent most of the ’90s lecturing with Adult Continuing Education (ACE) at UCC, she eventually returned to working at the university full time in 2003.

There is growing interest in Irish food, especially those seen as old, traditional, or ancient. Why? Is it a matter of identity?

“If we look at my parents’ generation, food for them was something very different, something they did every day with some certain special occasions. But their relationship with food was less intense than it is for people today, and in that intensity you’re not just shopping for food anymore, it’s becoming a lifestyle accessory for people.

“What I would have seen happening in my time is our relationship with food turning from: food, then Irish food, then local food, then seasonal food. Now it’s turning to what story does the food have; and that it must be authentic —whatever that means. It’s not just food today or in a place or at a time, but it is also food that has been delivered to us from somewhere else — from the past. Now it becomes something of our heritage; before food finally becomes something we take upon ourselves as an identity.”

This stormy, complex relationship that marks out the contemporary relationship with food creates fertile ground for confusion, misunderstanding, and misleading information — something that was at the heart of Regina’s determination to create the PDIFC.

“Because I’ve been working in food since the ’90s and coming from a food background, I was fortunate to see all these developments happen in my lifetime, circulating out there in different fora: chefs and cookery writers became educators, educators became educators.

“There were so many places someone could learn about food, and that was brilliant; but there was a lot of misinformation circulating as well, and there were three big threads that stood out for me with what was happening as an outsider looking in.

“Firstly, all the concerns about contemporary food issues: food policy, food systems, food sovereignty, food poverty. These are the issues that make the news, generate discourse on social media and traditional media, and in real politics as well in terms of how you’re dealing with these issues from a policy position, or not.

“Secondly, if every food choice a person makes has a consequence or a repercussion, how do we make these choices? Within that frame of thinking came the two looming issues in food of sustainability and the environment.

“Thirdly, there was an interest building up of heritage, the past, authenticity, and history: cultural identity.”

The PDIFC Group at Ballymaloe Cookery School. Picture: Kate Ryan
The PDIFC Group at Ballymaloe Cookery School. Picture: Kate Ryan

“I thought if there was a course that could look at all of those things from a very objective, research, fact-based position, it would be brilliant. They are the main legs of the PDIFC, but also then to address nutrition and health which can be very stressful and misleading for people with the circulation of misinformation.

“The PDIFC looks across food and looks at all the different ways in which we can think about it that have a relevance to people as they work with food or make their food choices in an everyday context.

“Then we brought together all the people who had research and expertise so we can look at one subject but from all different angles. That way of looking at something from all different angles will generate its own internal discussions, so it became both an inter-disciplinary and a trans-disciplinary endeavour. We thought that it was most valuable to move away from the generalised area of Food Studies, which can be anything and everything, and instead give it a targeted focus on Ireland, first and foremost.”

The PDIFC is a two-year course, part-time, with one three-hour lecture per week plus a recommended 12 hours for self-guided reading, research, and coursework completion.

In addition, four full-day guided workshops and field trips pepper the calendar, usually on Saturdays. The PDIFC sits at point 9 on the NFQ scale — equivalent to a Masters.

Applications are currently open for the next intake of students until August 27, with the programme starting on September 21. Funding has been secured from Taste4Success Skillnet which will represent a 20% reduction of the total fees for the course.

Having completed the first cycle of PDFIC, Regina recalls the experience as “extraordinary. The students are mature students, the vast majority involved in the food industry and their knowledge and experience was extremely valuable in a learning environment. That’s the ethos of Adult Continuing Education: we don’t just come in, tell you everything and that’s it, it’s a shared learning experience — giving you the facts, giving you the places to research and read, and then inviting students to come up with their own impression from the information received. That’s true learning, I think.”

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