Toasting the Oatcake

An exploration of the use of the hardening stand in bread-making

Regina Sexton

 

Until the late nineteenth century, oats (Avena sativa) were an important agricultural crop and dietary staple in Ireland. The status of oatmeal foods (pot-based and baked) as staple though inferior items in the diet is well-supported by archaeobotanical and historical evidence from the early medieval period. By the modern period, oat consumption had contracted as the potato gained a stronghold in the rural diets, especially amongst the poor. However, while largely displaced by increasing potato cultivation throughout the eighteenth century, oats retained a presence in northern and north western (and some eastern) counties thereby given a distinctive regional pattern to the diet in these areas. Today oats remain a popular though minor component of the Irish diet and several grades of commercially produced oatmeal and oat bran continue to be popular as breakfast cereals. And while the dietary status and meal function of oats have changed considerably over the last century, the enduring popularity of oats represents a remarkable continuity of traditional taste preferences and culinary customs. However, their current position in the diet owes as much to their low price and their reputed positive health properties as it does to an inheritance of traditional and immutable food practice. Indeed, it can be argued from a historical perspective that the ways in which oats were affected by and responded to changing social, economic and cultural conditions can be taken as an index, if not a microcosm, of the course of Irish food and culinary history.

Despite the association of oats with the concepts and patterns of tradition, retention and local and regional custom, very few academic studies have addressed the subject of oats and oatmeal foods. And by extension, no research has been directed to the material culture and hearth utensils associated with preparing, drying and toasting oatcakes. This presentation will focus on a specific utensil, the hardening stand (variously bread stick, bread iron, harden’ stand), that was used in conjunction with the griddle or bake stone before an open fire to dry-out oatcakes before consumption and/or storage.
The research findings presented in this paper are based on on-going study, analysis and evaluation of the hardening stands in two museum collections: one is based in Ireland and the other in Belfast. In recent years, a number of auction houses that specialise in vernacular pieces – furniture, cooking utensils and assorted ephemera- have begun to catalogue for sale a significant number of Irish hardening stands. The collections and catalogues of these auction houses will also be analysed from the perspective of the changing meaning attached to hardening stands and their symbolic value in contemporary society.

The presentation will take three separate but inter-dependent approaches: in the first instance the paper will address the descriptive elements of the utensil – materials (wood, iron and stone), form, function, evolution in the craft of their creation and the incorporation of aesthetic elements of design; it will then take a developmental viewpoint in linking the emergence, development and decline of the utensil with changing patterns of agriculture, food production and preparation and the increased commercialisation of the food industry in the post-Famine period. Finally it will be argued that harden stands are significant representatives of Irish folk art with utilitarian, aesthetic and symbolic value and meaning for tradition societies in a rural context.