Food, Self and Identity with Donal Ryan

Donal Ryan: Image source Anne Marie Ryan

This interview is part of the Tell Your Own Story Project – an initiative aimed at promoting inclusivity in Irish media and the wider community. The’ Food, Self and Identity’ series highlights what brings us together (food) but also provides unique insights into diverse respondents.

Author, lecturer in creative writing and epicurean Donal Ryan wittily shares his ‘bad eating habits’ with Dr. Florence LeBaron-Earle.

1. What is your name and occupation?

Donal Ryan. Writer and Lecturer.

2. Describe yourself in a couple of words or sentences.

I’m 45, married to Anne Marie, father to Thomas (13) and Lucy (12).

3. Where do you come from?

Nenagh, Co. Tipperary.

4. What food or dishes represent where you grew up?

Roast beef, roast lamb, shepherd’s pie, bacon and cabbage, vegetable soup (and potatoes with everything – boiled, mashed, roasted, fried the next morning…) Apple tart. Rhubarb tart. Blackberry jam.

5. Is there a scent, spice, or dish that brings you back to your childhood?

Strawberries and cream. Before we moved house when I was nine we had a very small but heavily cultivated back garden where my parents grew all sorts of vegetables, and there was an obsessively protected strawberry patch where, by some miracle, the fattest, juiciest strawberries fruited every summer.

6. Has anyone influenced you in your cooking? If yes, who?

My mother, by shouting at me that I’m doing it all wrong. She’s a great cook, very meticulous, and set in her skilful ways. Also my wife, Anne Marie, who very patiently showed me how to cook a set of proper meals around 2012 when, for a few reasons, I had to temporarily take over most of our family cooking. She is a very good cook and quite adventurous and I am very well-fed indeed.

7. What is the most exotic food you have ever tried?

Escargot. Not exactly exotic, I know, but I don’t even like looking at snails so I still can’t believe that I ate a small plate of them. I wasn’t even drunk.

8. What do you consider your greatest cooking achievement?

The time I made lasagne from scratch (well, I made the bechamel sauce from scratch, from a recipe in a book, impolitically called ‘Cooking for Dummies’). It actually looked like a proper lasagne, and no one died after eating it.

9. Do you have a cooking disaster anecdote to share?

I once signed up for a cookery course and the instructor for some reason thought my name was Roger and I didn’t correct her and I still meet a man who was also on the course and he says Hi Roger, even though I’m fairly sure he knows that’s not my name. The course was very good but I only did two evenings because of the whole Roger thing. It just got out of hand and I didn’t know how to fix it.

10. What do we always find in your fridge?

Butter, milk, orange juice, yogurt, applewood smoked cheddar (I’m addicted to it.) All sorts of un-crispy vegetables in the ‘vegetable crisper’. Halved avocadoes wrapped in tin foil belonging to Anne Marie. Stuff for the kids’ school lunches.

11. What is the cooking utensil or gadget you cannot live without?

A wooden spatula for stopping things from sticking to the pan, and a pasta strainer.

12. Do you have a ritual in preparing and/or serving food?

I obsessively tidy and clean the kitchen area while food is cooking, and I always forget to heat plates for serving, so last-minute microwaving of plates has become a pre-serving ritual. But to be honest, Anne Marie does most of our cooking now and my biggest ritual is sitting at the table saying ‘ETA on the food?’ which is very annoying for her.

13. What is your favourite herb?

I was going to lie here and try to sound all fancy and knowledgeable but I have to admit that I don’t have a favourite herb. Maybe the green one that Milano’s chefs sprinkle on their pizzas?

14. Do you have a go-to food or dish when you need comfort, e.g. when sick or feeling low?

Shepherd’s pie with cheese on top, served with brown sauce and a glass of cold milk. I very rarely get sick but when Anne Marie feels sorry for me for any reason it’s what she makes me.

15. Do you prefer supermarkets or farmer’s markets?

I think farmer’s markets are great. Castletroy Shopping Centre is brilliant because it has a farmer’s market on Fridays and SuperValu every day. I did our ‘big shop’ every week during the lockdowns and I got really good at it.

Well, I thought I was good at it but I apparently went way over budget every week, buying too much of everything. I think maybe I was in a sustained, low-level panic-mode, like a drawn-out version of the time that everyone went mad buying bread because it was windy.

16. Do you prefer eating in or out?

I love both. I love eating. We always have a good laugh at home in Woodhaven, and it’s great when everyone is together in my mother’s house in Nenagh. But we have some excellent restaurants locally, like Brew Bros, Bella Italia and Tuscany (and top-class takeaways like Macari’s, who do the best fish and chips this side of Donkey Ford’s) and Limerick city has loads of fabulous places for eating out.

17. What is the best way to cook an egg?

This is a great question. I love eggs. My nephew is allergic to them, which brought home to all of us how many things contain egg. I like an egg fried over-easy and eaten in a white toast sandwich with butter and ketchup.

18. Do you have a food pet peeve?

I hate being hungry, so my peeves are all about supply.

19. What time do you usually eat the main meal of your day?

Around 7pm. Sometimes I eat a big lunch at work, in the Pavilion, or Cube Cafe in the Kemmy building, and I lie to myself that I’ve had my main meal, but then I have dinner that evening and I lie to myself again that I’ll go for a long run the next morning to shed the excess calories but I usually don’t. I keep those calories. I keeps ‘em all. I stores ‘em up.

20. What did you have as a main meal yesterday?

The kids and I had spaghetti Bolognese that Anne Marie made before she went to visit friends and left in the oven on low heat. I’m perfectly capable of making spag bol but it’s like she doesn’t trust me or something. I used to cook a lot when the kids were younger as I said earlier but I’ve fallen out of practice and I’m a bit forgetful so maybe her mistrust is justified.

Finally, please, share with us one of your favourite recipes

Again, I was going to try to sound fancy and pretend that I have a signature dish, but genuinely my favourite recipe is the one that Anne Marie uses to make the shepherd’s pie that I would eat until I burst, or the recipe that my mother uses to make her roast dinners. She makes proper gravy from the meat juices with onions that is magical. I feel very guilty about my inability to pretend that I have a recipe of my own. I was asked to contribute one to a book for charity a few years ago and I had to decline, and it would be nice to be able to have one here. Just thinking about it now, though – and I know that this is ridiculously simple and easy and not really a recipe at all – but I was very proud recently when my mother really enjoyed a starter that I made. I poured some good olive oil (have you noticed that ALL olive oil is labelled ‘extra-virgin’? It couldn’t all be!) into a small dish, some balsamic vinegar into another small dish, ground sea salt into both, and sliced fresh crusty white rolls to dip into the salted oil and vinegar. Beautiful. I also like to cook sirloin steak in butter and onions; again, not quite a recipe, more of a bad habit.

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