RECENTLY, while strolling down a city street, I stopped dead in my tracks at a window display of Irish cookbooks.
As an Irish-American who grew up with half-baked notions of Irish food, the concept allured me: What does Ireland offer that constitutes a cuisine? And what creative tactics do the Irish take in extolling their plain and rather colorless food to the world?
I headed inside the bookstore with these questions in mind. Under the massive ``cookery'' section, I began to scan a wall of shelves in search of the letter ``I''. Next to the endless sequence of beautiful I-talian cookbooks, a wee gathering of I-rish books stood off in the shadows, huddled in a dusty corner.
I grabbed for the biggest hardback. Page after page featured Ireland's lush and rugged landscapes and craggy castles opposite humble dishes embellished with elegant settings. As the book points out: Apart from soda bread and Irish stew, traditional Irish fare includes dishes like bacon and cabbage stew, nettle soup, barmbrack (a heavy fruit bread), boxtys (potato-like pancakes), and Dublin coddle - a stew of sausage, bacon, onions, and potatoes.
Another Irish cookbook was a modest paperback (with no photos) that skipped the landscape lure entirely, opting for something more historical and heady: the 2,000-year-old link between Irish food and Celtic civilization.
A third, rather thin cookbook read like an overblown travel brochure, romanticizing and praising Ireland's ``unpretentious'' and ``simple but filling'' food.
The liveliest read, however, deserves more attention than the aforementioned. Titled, ``A Trifle, a Coddle, a Fry: An Irish Literary Cookbook'' (Moyer Bell, 1993, $18.95), it focuses on a dozen bigwigs of Irish literature, among them James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Sean O'Casey, and Elizabeth Bowen.
Cookbook authors, Veronica Jane O'Mara and Fionnuala O'Reilly, cull food references from the writings of these luminaries and then create recipes for the dishes. With a sure hand, they mix these elements with a good amount of literary savvy, gusto, and wit.
Under the ``Bloomsday Breakfast,'' a meaty feast of smoked bacon, grilled kidney, and breaded liver, a passage from Ulysses reads: ``Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod's roes....''
The two cookbook authors remind us, however, that ``the best breakfast in the book isn't even eaten by the man it's meant for - he faces imminent execution and with great magnanimity leaves his magnificent breakfast ... to the Sick and Indigent Roomkeeper's Society!''
Sixty-seven Irish recipes are featured in this cookbook. A small sampling includes Shaw's recipe for Pinhead Oatmeal Porridge (``If you still think it as unpalatable as dry bread,'' he suggests, ``treat it as you treat the bread; stir up a bounteous lump of butter''); Potato Cakes (``the staple food in Irish literature,'' as noted by the authors); Assassination Custard (a dessert that nourished Samuel Beckett after he was accosted by a pimp called Prudent); and Tripe (although the authors confess, ``tripe is really not our bag'').
For readers who don't have the stomach for the bulk of these dishes - fear not: The most appetizing portions of the book highlight the personal culinary experiences of the Irish writers themselves.
The most popular question posed to playwright-critic Shaw, a lifelong vegetarian, concerned his diet. To this, he would reply with a standard postcard: ``Mr Shaw's correspondents are reminded that current vegetarianism does not mean living wholly on vegetables. Vegetarians eat cheese, butter, honey, eggs, and, on occasion, cod liver oil. On this diet, without tasting fish, flesh or fowl, Mr Shaw has reached the age of 92 (1948) in as good condition as his meat-eating contemporaries.''
The cookbook authors, who inform us that Shaw was adamant about remaining thin, also surface this memorable gem: ``There is a story that the corpulent Alfred Hitchcock said that just by looking at Shaw he knew there was still famine in Ireland.'' Shaw replied, ``One look at you, Mr. Hitchcock, and I know who caused it.''
Edith Sommerville and Violet Martin (who wrote under the pen name Ross), a couple of feisty travel writers, held ``a rather absent-minded attitude to food.'' Meals serve as comic opportunities for this duo; delicious ones are never described in detail, though the nasty ones are.
The Baked Salmon recipe offers a taste of their ruthlessness: ``Detestable soup in a splendid old silver tureen that was nearly as dark in hue as Robinson Crusoe's thumb; a perfect salmon, perfectly cooked, on a chipped kitchen dish; such cut glass as is not easy to find nowadays; stew that ... would burn the shell off an egg.'' As these animated writers make clear: If the heart of Irish fare lies in its simple, honest cooking, the most fitting (and most convincing) way to convey it is through the spirit of unpretentious folks - who know how to bite back hard.