Throwback Thursday: Cabbage, mutton... the foods we hated

Cork readers shared their memories of foods of their childhood with JO KERRIGAN — some they recalled fondly, others they detested...
Throwback Thursday: Cabbage, mutton... the foods we hated

The opening of lamb abattoir in Cork in May, 1927

WHATEVER else we may have forgotten over the years — whatever disasters, dramas, and eventful occasions have slipped from our minds — we never quite forget, it seems, the food that appeared on the table day after day, week after week, in those formative years.

The breakfast that started the morning. The heavy dinner around 1pm before you headed back to a long afternoon in school. The welcoming homecoming tea, so often, sadly, followed by the rigours of homework. And perhaps a hot drink before bed.

The ingredients might vary from season to season, but the meals were always predictable.

Mothers back then did not as a rule vary the recipes, did not hunt for something exciting and new to try on the family. If they did, more than likely there would be objections.

“What happened to the old one? Why are we having this queer stuff? Can’t we have what we always have?”

No, it wasn’t a time for experimentation, trying new tastes and ideas, back then. That was still to come, in the heady days of the late ’60s, when everything changed. Before that, Ireland, in town and country, stuck with the old ways and the traditional dishes.

Tony Daly vividly remembers that the vegetable he detested above all else (and still does) was cabbage. He can’t be blamed: back then, the traditional way to cook cabbage was to boil it forever in a big saucepan until the strong smell went everywhere inside the house and out, and the whole lot was reduced to an unattractive pulp.

Cabbage was easy to grow and supposedly nutritious, although there can’t have been much nutrition left after all that boiling, and the water thrown out into the garden (the plants probably benefited though).

For breakfast, says Tony, they always had porridge, which was filling and warming. 

“Friday dinner was always fish and chips as we were a good Catholic family.”

Indeed, so associated was fish with penitential days and fasting that it took a long time for Irish tastes to regard it as a luxury food. Time was you could get turbot in the English Market for four shillings a pound (cod was two shillings). Nowadays, if you could even find turbot, you would need two gold-plated credit cards.

The only time Tony’s family had a fry-up was on Christmas morning. “That was great. Rashers, sausages, fried eggs and fried bread, all done in the same fat in the frying pan. Later on, black pudding appeared.”

For main meals throughout the year, it was often stew, with whatever meat was available. “We grew lots of veg & spuds, and kept some hens for eggs. Occasionally, one old hen would end up in the pot, and the carcass became chicken soup for a day or so afterwards.”

“Oh, and I nearly forgot, home made bread, especially brown soda bread,” adds Tony. “Still love that today.

“My grandmother made ‘bastable cake,’ a coarse brown loaf baked in a covered iron pot on an open fire, with hot coals/wood/turf on top of it. 

"Then it was eaten hot with lots of butter, and strong tea to wash it down.

Rose Brothers butchers at 29, MacCurtain Street, Cork, in July, 1935
Rose Brothers butchers at 29, MacCurtain Street, Cork, in July, 1935

Denis O’Mahony remembers that when his younger siblings were small, and about to progress to solid food, he would be sent to the local shop to buy two Arrowroot biscuits for the baby, who would gum them to death. Or the biscuits might be served mashed with a little milk, in which case it was called ‘goodie’. “I think that referred to any mixture of goo that could be made with milk/bread/biscuits.”

Back then, you didn’t have processed commercial little jars and tins to introduce your offspring to the joys of firm food. They had what you were having if it was soft and smooth enough, or else that softened bread or biscuit.

“I remember clearly sitting up in my high chair,” says Katie O’Brien. 

“I must have been about one or one and a half.  The family were having stew, and I had a saucer of it in front of me with the potato carefully mashed. 

"The strips of onion, and the lines they had on them, fascinated me at that age.”

Denis O’Mahony can still hear his mother’s voice telling him to run to the shops.

“‘Go over for an onion, and make sure it’s one of our own!’ It took me a long time to understand that the expression ‘our own’ meant Irish grown. Then, carrots, turnips, cabbage, parsnips, cauliflower were all common. I never heard of broccoli back then, and I’m not sure when Brussels sprouts appeared.

“Nevertheless, I hated them all, though I could just about tolerate mashed turnips with butter and lots of pepper.”

Breakfast in his childhood was porridge, with tea, bread and jam and maybe toast. “Mother’s voice ringing in our ears, ‘don’t use all the butter!’ I can’t recall how we made toast , It was probably under the grill on a gas cooker. I’m not sure if toasters existed then. And of course, I have memories of making toast with a long fork before the open fire. It was a bit hit and miss making it like that. Sometimes you ended up with a burnt cinder.”

Saturday dinner in the O’Mahony household was always mashed spuds and steak with brown gravy.

“My Dad was home Saturdays, so it was special. Sunday dinner was always corned beef. Mother’s voice again: ‘Go down to Mr Connell and get x amount of corned beef. Make sure it’s crop end!’”

Denis’s mother’s family worked in Denny’s pork factory on Watercourse Road, so inevitably pork in its many forms was frequently on the menu. Typical meals were bacon and cabbage with boiled spuds, and occasionally pork knuckle.

“Aunt Nan would bring a big bag of pork knuckles from time to time. They were individually big but only had a morsel of meat on each. 

"They were divine though. She also used to bring sweetbreads, which were some gland shaped like a small liver, if I remember right. They were fried on a pan and were delicious too. Later on, I took a turn against such foods and would no longer eat them or liver. Or even skirts and kidneys.”

On Sunday mornings, his father would cook up a huge fry. “I remember frequently getting a few sausages and a bit of black pudding in bed. I did develop a liking for the full Irish breakfast that still lingers with me, although these days I try to confine it to once a month.”

Occasionally, Mrs O’Mahony prepared tripe and drisheen, which was boiled for ages in milk. “I though it was disgusting to look at, let alone eat, but they argued it was good for you. Yuck!”

Jane Kelleher remembers tripe too. “My mother loved it, but all of us kids hated the very sight of it, let alone the smell, so she could only stew it in milk the way she liked when we were all out of the house for the day.

“Looking back, I think it was a bit mean of us!”

As Denis entered his teens, he firmly limited his diet to “sausage, chips and peas. My mother did make the nicest chips on the planet, in a pot of boiling fat on the cooker. Highly dangerous, but she never had a mishap.

FRESHLY MADE: Workers at the Thompson’s bread and cake factory in MacCurtain Street, Cork, in 1953
FRESHLY MADE: Workers at the Thompson’s bread and cake factory in MacCurtain Street, Cork, in 1953

“Sometimes, on a long cold evening, she would make a quick batch of chips and to avoid any wash-up, they would be served on pages of that day’s Evening Echo!”

“Our desserts were rice pudding (flavoured with a little nutmeg), with a dollop of strawberry jam added; apple tarts, home-made of course; bread pudding, made with leftover bread and a few sultanas and milk.

“Upmarket of that she made ‘queen of pudding’, which was a version of bread pudding, with a layer of jam and a covering of beaten egg white toasted on top in the oven.”

What Frank Desmond remembers most about his mother shopping in the early 1960s was that, in places such as Roches Stores, the bags were of brown paper with no ads or indeed any writing at all on them.

“The problem was that the meat (that Sunday’s joint) was so wet that it soaked through the paper of the bag and the question seemed to be whether it would fall out entirely (although evidently it did not).”

Foods that Frank particularly hated were turnips, carrots and mutton. “I never even see turnips nowadays but I can at least tolerate carrots. And back then it was always mutton rather than lamb (which I actually like). It got to the stage where I simply refused to eat mutton if it was put in front of me.

“One time my mother told me to eat my dinner and swore it was NOT mutton. But it certainly tasted like it as far as I was concerned. I ate under protest, to the great amusement of my brothers.”

And those crisps of yesteryear that we mentioned last week are recalled fondly by many readers.

“Oh yes, I remember the plain crisps with the blue paper twist of salt in the packet,” says Ann Murphy. “I loved them, and the excitement of looking for and adding the twist of salt. I think they were Perri’s Crisps?”

Frank Desmond can also visualise that blue and white Perri bag which, he thinks, didn’t survive beyond the 1960s. “There was never enough salt for your liking, though,” remembers Tony Daly.

These icons of childhood were originally created by the Capaldi family, but were eventually bought out by Largo, and later incorporated into the vast Tayto empire.

Incidentally, for those who asked, Tayto, founded by Joe Murphy back in 1954, and later owned by Cantrell & Cochrane, was the first to invent flavoured crisps, initially Cheese & Onion, and Salt & Pepper, whereby a blended additive was shaken over the crisps before packaging.

This created enormous international interest and spawned a fashion that has not gone away since.

The plain crisp, indeed, is now the rare exception (just try looking for them next time you are in the snacks aisle).

Tayto production was later outsourced to Largo, who eventually sold out to German company Intersnack. Ah me…

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