Health Food, The Irish Times Healthplus

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What is a health food? I think we all think we know the answer, and suspect our answers to the question would be broadly similar: health food is food that is good for our bodies, and doesn’t have any harmful effects.

For many the obvious food that comes to mind will be pulses and grains – lentils; beans; brown rice – and for others it might be something like dark chocolate, whilst for others it will be drinks such as green tea. But is that all that health foods are, or can be? Foods that stand out from the crowd for particular reasons – high in antioxidants; high in vital minerals and enzymes. That’s good stuff, of course, but is that all there is to health foods? I don’t think so.

So let me propose my answer to what health foods are. Health foods are foods produced and prepared by people who are determined to make the most delicious, life-affirming, enriching food that they can.

And if that food happens to be a hand-baked lemon cake lathered with freshly made cream cheese icing, then that lemon cake fits perfectly into my definition. And so does a butterfly cake, or two. Here, have another slice: it’s good for you. My definition may sound like a glutton’s charter, but actually it’s a definition freighted with hard work. To get the right lemon cake, for instance, the one that is good for you, you need to know the right person, the one who makes that cake with TLC. Just picking up some commercial stuff off the supermarket shelf won’t cut it. Dammit; this is hard work, here!

The source for my expanded definition is, firstly, Jim Tynan. Since 1982, Mr Tynan has been working in Portlaoise, first in a little place called The Coffee Studio, then in Jim’s Country Kitchen and, since 1996, in The Kitchen & Foodhall in Hynds Square. In the nicest possible way, he is a local legend, noted for hard work, modesty, and devotion to his family. A year ago, he wrote a cookery book entitled “Jim’s Kitchen”, and in it he wrote: “All of the food was made from scratch and that is how it still is today... I would finish every night at about 10’o clock but my policy was that the food must be the best that is available and that was the level of work needed to achieve this”.

I found that an utterly inspiring, vocational thing to say, but I wasn’t a bit surprised by it, and nor would anyone who knows Jim Tynan and eats his food have been surprised either. Everything is The Kitchen & Foodhall is freighted with care, with dedication, food that “must be the best”. In his new book, “Jim’s Kitchen 2” he goes even further, describing the arrival of the first apples into the shop: “It’s a very poignant and significant ritual and reminds me of how wonderful cooking and baking really is and the connections that can be made with people because of it. Almost immediately, I can smell that first apple tart of the season and pre-empt the texture and taste as I serve it up with some fresh egg custard, from the eggs my hens have laid”. Delicious; life-affirming; enriching: don’t you think that is health food?

Good food, you see, healthy food, is not just good to eat. It must also be good to think, and when I think of Jim’s appreciation of baking, and of his relationship with Mary Dooley who arrives with the apples from her trees, and when I think of how hard he works, then I know that that apple tart isn’t just good to eat: it is also good to think.
And for me, that is health food. Especially the custard.

Another little book drove home this message of what health food can be. “The Secret of the Mince Pies” is a collection of recipes by the late Christina Haughey, collected by her daughter, Monica Haughey. Christina was celebrated as a baker, and Monica’s book of her recipes collects the sweet baking most associated her. Healthy? “They are to be enjoyed now and again and they are about comfort and bringing family and friends together: these are the healthy aspects of the recipes”. What a wise statement: the healthy aspect of the recipe is not what it contains, but the effect it creates. Health food, then, is really food for the soul as well as the body, and the feel-good factor is vital, as is the think-good factor. Monica Haughey uses the recipes to celebrate the bond of family and to summon the past into our scarcely-comfortable present day. It’s a present day when many Irish citizens urgently need the healthful effects of Christina Haughey’s chocolate fudge squares, or Jim Tynan’s lemon cake with cream cheese icing.

Jim’s Kitchen and Jim’s Kitchen 2 are available from The Kitchen & Foodhall, Hynds Square, Portlaoise, as well as other local shops.

The Secret of the Mince Pies is available from the Dublin Food Co-Op, 12 Newmarket Dublin 8