It’s summer but not quite, just the threshold. Still a cold bite some evenings, and I hankered for something hearty, so after forty years of avoiding it, I made a coddle. Or is it? It had the constituent ingredients – broth, potatoes, onions, piggy parts floating ambiguously between a soup and stew – but does that make it coddle? I have no idea.
We often ate frugally growing up, but coddle never featured, both parents being up from the country like, and coddle was a very Dubelin thing. Allegedly. It is a thing that exists in the culinary imagination, but not so often on a plate in front of you. Despite its impeccable literary credentials (Joyce mentioning it in both Dubliners and Finnegans Wake), it has eluded the deconstructivist gaze of the city’s Michelin chefs. Joe Biden was not papped horsing into a coddle on his recent visit. It does not get the nod for state banquets. No paintings of it hang in the National Gallery, Ronnie Drew never sang about it, and neither does Damo. With the honourable exception of The Woollen Mills, I never see it on restaurant menus. I’m informed that regulars in The Gravediggers in Glasnevin are partial to the establishment’s coddle, and I applaud any publican holding the line against the current mania for offering nothing but pizza to soak up our pints. Back when Gruel on Dame Street was teaching us how to be diverse people getting along by eating together, Billy Scurry might have knocked one out, but that could just be nostalgia on my part.
Of course, coddle gets plenty of touristy blather, along with other stuff the locals would barely recognise. Who knows, Temple Bar could be a cauldron of coddle excellence and bold innovation, but like any sensible person, I walk with brisk purpose and do not pause to dine there. Similarly in the identikit Irish bars without which other global cities are incomplete, I doubt the diaspora are crying into their shit Guinness over the lack of a good coddle. The last few days I have been canvassing keen eaters if they ever dabble in the coddle. Responses have ranged from ‘grand’ to ‘disgusting’, and more the latter than the former. Even its defenders struggled to recall when they had last partaken of it, the median response being ‘about twenty years ago’. Like Romantic Ireland in Yeats’ September 1913, coddle seems to be with O’Leary in the grave.
It appears coddle is a food from our past that few are keen on eating in the present. Perhaps it carries a stigma that evokes the grinding poverty that was the miserable lot of most Dubliners in Joyce’s time, or fifty years earlier, the thin gruel served by well intentioned Quakers in the famine soup kitchens west of The Shannon. A food you never really wanted to eat, but the alternative was to go hungry, or worse. A ‘bia bocht’, a poverty food. In antiquity, oysters, monkfish and lobster were also seen as bia bocht, an irony we can all laugh at as we look at the eye watering prices they command today. But nobody’s laughing about coddle.
Speaking of jokes, there’s an old one among academics that the three slimmest volumes in any library are those on Italian war heroes, Scottish philanthropists and Irish recipes. That’s no longer so, and Irish bookshops today are a groaning all-you-can-read cookbook buffet. Some of them gamely include a coddle recipe, though it hardly warrants one, in the same way you shouldn’t really need instruction on how to scramble an egg. As coddle tradition dictates, most will call for the boiling of the sausages. This is very problematic. Surely the whole point of sausages is that bronzed exterior acquired through direct heat and Maillard action, that slight resistance between your teeth before the skin snaps to deliver the textural contrast of whatever porcine mystery is waiting inside. Anything else is just an affront to sausages, and coddle fundamentalists can ask me bollix if they think I am going to boil mine. I have my principles and so does Donal Skehan, whose method gives the boiled sausage a hard no, and on this matter I find myself in agreement with the telegenic conjurer of uncomplicated dinners in his spotless kitchen. People who know me will tell you this is a first.
Here’s what I did do. Made a chicken stock and wasn’t too picky about skimming off its fat. Sautéed without colour some onions, spuds, and a few garlic cloves ‘cause I have notions. Plopped them in the stock, handful of thyme, cooked it out until the potato started to offer just enough starch to give the broth a little body. Found some cheapo smoked bacon offcuts in the German discounter, which was good, because I like my coddle dirt cheap. Fried those off in unruly chunks. Ditto some little meatballs I made, equal parts sausage meat and coarse ground pork. Big seasoning in those – woody herbs, fennel seed, nutmeg, even a little flaky chilli. Closer in flavour profile to an Italian salsiccia than Hafner’s, Olhausen, Granby or any other venerable Dublin banger. More notions. After the frying there was a nice sticky fond on the base of that pan, so I deglazed it with some of the stock and lashed it in with the other gear. Seasoned the whole lot vigorously with ground white pepper, that seemed historically correct, and finally a fistful of parsley. A doddle.
Dinner is poured
Having likely offended our coddle-eating, sausage-boiling Fenian dead quite enough, I meddled no further. It wasn’t easy – the temptation to pimp the coddle was overwhelming. Cavolo nero, chorizo, pimenton, a slick of chilli oil, even saffron came to mind, anything to relieve it of its anaemic pallor and aura of prison food. Such exotic imports within easy reach for Dubliners today, it’s hard to imagine a time before them, but in the tenement life described so vividly in James Plunkett’s Strumpet City, there isn’t a single mention of kimchi. So for authenticity’s sake, I let the coddle be.
While it cooled a little, I thought about the basic principles of coddle and the wider human condition, which goes something like this. You’re poor, the contents of your larder can be counted on both hands, you have a pot and a solitary heat source, a stove if you’re lucky but any fire will suffice, and you’ve a lot of mouths to feed. You are almost always a woman. You have water, some lesser cut of animal protein that needs to go a very long way, and a cheap but plentiful carbohydrate like rice, pasta, noodles, pulses or tubers. On good days there will be vegetables if you can afford them or grow them, and something piquant or aromatic to break the monotony.
It is basic, but all cuisines started with the contents of this solitary pot. The knowledge to make it can be handed down orally, the manual skills can be acquired quickly. The pot is big and we can eat from it together, a practice known as commensality that binds us, teaches us, shapes us. It takes on ritual meaning and becomes increasingly expressive, both of the place where it was made and the person who made it. Even when made badly it sustains us, but when made well it becomes a source of anticipation, pleasure and gratitude. And it is everywhere you look. In Morocco they will break the Ramadan fast with Harira, a spicy broth with chickpeas, and in Mexico, Sopa al Tortilla is one among countless variations. On the Iberian Peninsula it’s Fabada Asturiana with beans, chorizo and morcilla or Caldo Verde with Portuguese sausage, potatoes and kale; in France a gratinated Soupe à l’Oignon, Garbure or a more elevated Pot au Feu. Italians will make their Tortellini al Brodo, which Marco Polo must have encountered in China as Wonton Soup. Elsewhere in Asia, there is Pho in Vietnam, Tom Yum in Thailand, Laksa in Malaysia, Soto Ayam in Indonesia, and Ramen in Japan. Miso Soup, with its thrifty reliance on seaweed and fermented soybeans, might be the most resourceful and ingenious of them all.
Convinced our cuisine has only ever been bland, we islanders are attracted to these foods with a whiff of the exotic. Some of us will get on airplanes to eat them at source. Now I know what you’re thinking. He’s not seriously suggesting that coddle has a place in this souperhero pantheon? I admit it’s a stretch, but there is no denying that coddle presents itself as an Irish footnote in humankind’s long story of water, carbohydrate and protein rendered into food for life.
Being hungry myself, I take a mouthful, a little of everything on the spoon. Potato, onion, bacon, meatball, the broth with its fatty sheen and flecks of parsley and thyme. It’s tasty – brighter than I expected. Nothing amazing, but not penitential either. Not life changing, but in its own modest way, life affirming. Gentle, satiating food for when you might be in need of solace in a bowl. I ladle some out for the girls. ‘Your dinner’s poured out’, says I. We eat together. When they’re finished, they say this coddle is good. I’m pleased by that, and when the evenings draw in later in the year, I will make it again.
Traditions can die very quickly, passing into obscurity within a generation. When Dubliners old enough to remember Nelson’s Pillar, Bang Bang and the Swastika Laundry shrug off the mortal coil, coddle may well depart with them. That would be a pity. Me and coddle have gone on a bit of a jaunt around the town, and I have to conclude it’s a tradition worth maintaining. Food is a daily necessity, but it’s also a time traveller along old foodways that can bring our deeper social history to life. If that seems perverse, just be thankful you’re not Swedish, where they summon the ancestors with Surströmming, fermented herring with the dubious honour of being the world’s smelliest food, stored in cans that start to bulge over time and never eaten indoors. Or Hákarl from Iceland, fermented shark that mostly tastes of ammonia and described by Anthony Bourdain as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he had ever eaten.
By the Scandinavian yardstick, charges that coddle is disgusting seem a gross miscarriage of justice. Perhaps its truest analogue is chicken noodle soup, the restorative elixir made by Yiddish grandmothers, and known universally as Jewish penicillin. Coddle might be an equally effective remedy for the Irish household. Just don’t ask me to boil the sausages. I will in me hoop.
Gerry Godley runs Bread Man Walking, a microbakery serving sourdough, brioche and pastries to Dublin 8 and nearby every Saturday from 12 to 3pm. Pre-order by DM @bread_man_walking
Words: Gerry Godley