“Basically it’s bacon chunks, sausages, onions, little carrots and potatoes, salt and white pepper,” says Theresa Daly of T.J.’s Coffee Bar on Parnell Street, on a recent Friday morning.
Daly scans a small slip of paper to make sure that’s all the ingredients.
“Now, I brown, slightly, the sausages and I brown, slightly, the bacon chunks,” she says. Other than that, hers is a classic “white” coddle.
Coddle is very much an each-to-their-own affair when it comes to vegetables or meat cuts, but there are some additions to the dish that have caused debate among Dubliners over the years.
The “brown” coddle made by adding Oxo cubes, beef stock, or oxtail soup, is a no-go for some. Other versions, like the “black” coddle, were borne out of necessity.
The City Man’s Stew
Coddle is typically made with sausages, cheap cuts of bacon, onions, potatoes, and water. They’re the basics.
Boiled for hours, without adding cream or browning it, its watery anemic appearance isn’t always appetizing.
But it’s delicious, says Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire, lecturer in culinary arts at Dublin Institute of Technology, who makes coddle for his students each year.
Word on the street, he says, is that the dish originated in Ringsend, owing to the prevalence of “one-pot cooking” among sailors way back when. “The way to look at a coddle is that it’s really a city man’s Irish stew, with sausages and rashers instead of mutton and lamb,” he says.
But it’s a divisive dish, he says, when it comes to colour.
Mac Con Iomaire’s own recipe consists of water, sausages, rashers, potatoes, carrots, and celery. Brought up to the boil for give or take 40 minutes. “Being a chef you always put a little bit of a twist on something so I put some fresh leeks in just at the end and add a drop of cream. Just at the end,” he says.
He says he first learned how to make the Dublin staple when a friend’s mother, who grew up around Sheriff Street, served him a bowl about 30 years ago. “But she didn’t make it normally, because it reminded her of poverty,” he says.
Mac Con Iomaire can’t pin down exactly the ratio of Dubliners eating white coddle or brown coddle. But he’s always eager to learn people’s preferences. “Every time I get into a taxi, if the driver’s from Dublin, I ask them what’s in their coddle,” he says.
A Winter Special
Back on Parnell Street, Daly says hers has always been a white coddle.
It’s an off-menu option at T.J.’s. But most weeks during the winter months she’ll get a phone call from one or more regulars requesting she prep the dish for their visit a few days later.
But never the brown coddle? “Oh no. No, no, no, no,” she says. “You’re not tasting your bacon and sausage then. You’re tasting beef. On, no.”
Peter, an elderly chap in a Dublin jersey and cap, agrees. White coddle every time, he maintains. “Once you add the oxtail that’s the end of it,” he says.
There are equally staunch defenders of brown coddle, though.
“A lot of people would like the white coddle, but I’ve never known any different,” says Bernie Pierce, manager of Lourdes Day Care Centre on Sean McDermott Street. She inherited her brown coddle recipe from her mother.
Adding a beef stock Oxo cube to the water, sausages, bacon, and onion, has a purpose other than taste. It’s to disguise the often poached, pale appearance of the dish. “I wouldn’t like to eat a white coddle because I think it looks awful,” says Pierce.
“I think, in a lot of cases, you cook what you’re reared with,” she says.
And what you’re reared with varies not just in the colour. “Some people put tomatoes in, some people put ribs in,” says Pierce. “Some people just add to it, so when I was a child my mother would have always made it with back bacon rashers. People now buy bacon pieces.”
Pierce whips up a pot of her brown coddle every Christmas morning. “People are out all day, visiting the graveyards and all the rest. Coddle goes down better than a pot of soup,” she says.
In one particular spot of city, the debate between white or brown rages on, even today.
If you really wanted to irk a Ringsend dock worker, says Declan Byrne of the Dublin Dockworkers Preservation Society, you’d mention coddle.
“It was a gentle wind-up,” he says. “You’d talk about the brown coddle. That was enough to get them going.”
In Ringsend, white coddle was nearly always the accepted version, he says.
It became apparent one “coddle night” held as part of Dublin’s Culture Connects – a council-led community initiative – that East Wall natives tended towards the brown, and Ringsenders the white.
Although these days the debate is over white or brown, there was time when a third version of the dish fed hungry tenement dwellers.
Terry Fagan, of the North Inner City Folklore Project, recalls interviewing tenement dwellers while researching his book Monto: Madams, Murder and Black Coddle.
“They said they used to have a black coddle,” recalls Fagan. “If you were living in the tenements, you were cooking over the fire and the soot would come down and drop into the coddle.”
But such was the poverty that the one-pot meal couldn’t be chucked. “So the soot would normally be mixed in with it,” says Fagan. “Once it went in, you’d no way of getting it out. If you were hungry you wouldn’t turn your nose up at it.”
Coddle is a dish that keeps on evolving across the city, it seems.
But make sure not to put the potatoes in too early, advises Daly of T.J.’s. They’re the thickening agent, but add them too soon and you’ll get “a sausage soup”, she cautions.
Some might might add pearl barley or dumplings, says Mac Con Iomaire. There are endless variants.
“I know me coddle is good,” he says. “The reason I know me coddle is good is because all the porters of Cathal Brugha Street [where DIT’s culinary school’s located], when they hear I’m making me coddle they come up knockin’ on the door.”