‘God made food, the devil the cooks’: James Joyce’s Ulysses, or the Irish Stew

I was recently an examiner at a modernist literature exam for Modern Languages (which are done in person in Italy), and one of the poor souls I had to examine came as far as to claim, within the first two minutes into the oral examination, that all novels are realistic, and have a didactic purpose.  Now, nothing makes my hands twitch like broad statements and hyper-generic stereotyped truths, such as “All novels are long”, “All Germans like  drinking beer”, “All poets were unhappy “, and so on. As the student had dropped the bomb, I had to ask: “so what does Joyce exactly teach us?”. Of course, what followed was one of those eternally perceived silences of about 60 seconds, with the student deciding it was a better choice to just stare into the black hole which must have been born behind my shoulders that very moment… I then broke that silence by going back to the first part of the student’s complex philosophical statement, and asking: “Okay, how about realism? Can you please expand on that and see if it applies to Joyce’s Ulysses?”  “Well, it is one man’s life on a specific day… We follow what he does, and the characters he meets… They eat, for instance”.


Well, after all, the student was right about that. The 16th of June, 1904, Leopold Bloom’s day is punctuated by snacks and meals, encapsulating his journey within the heart of Ireland. The first proper meal we witness Leopold Bloom have would be quite stomach-turning to most people’s tastes these days, as well as be considered as an unhealthy proteic bomb ready for explosion in our bodies:

‘Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards,  a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod’s roes.  Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.’ (U 65) 

(I should add, at this point, that both Nico and Amy’s thankfully unroasted, unstuffed hearts sank at the idea of recreating this quite incredible feast of organs for the blog!) Beefsteaks and kidneys feature quite prominently in Ulysses, and they indeed remind us of the core elements of everyday life as well as of Joyce’s poetics, or perhaps his life obsessions: sex,  food and digestion (and everything that comes with it – ‘food, chyle,  blood, dung, earth, food’, U 225). Joyce, not too unlike his protagonist Bloom, particularly enjoyed making lists of food, with certain interludes in them which give hints at the sexual intercourses with his wife Nora.

The Lestrygonians episode is perhaps the most interesting in this respect, as Leopold mentions and covers a variety of foods, as well as reminds us of his Jewish origins–

‘Sardines on the shelves. Almost taste them by looking. Sandwich? Ham and his descendants musterred and bred there. Potted meats. What ishome without Plumtree’s potted meat? Incomplete. What a stupid ad! Under the obituary notices they stuck it. All up a plumtree. Dignam’spotted meat. Cannibals would with lemon and rice. White missionary too salty. Like pickled pork. […] Puzzle find the meat. Kosher. No meat and milk together. Hygiene thatwas what they call now. Yom Kippur fast spring cleaning of inside. Peace and wardepend on some fellow’s digestion. Religions. Christmas turkeys and geese. Slaughter of innocents. Eat drink and be merry. Then casual wards fullafter.Heads bandaged. Cheese digests all but itself. Mity cheese.

       —Have you a cheese sandwich?

       —Yes, sir.

Like a few olives too if they had them. Italian I prefer. Good glass of burgundy take away that. Lubricate. A nice salad, cool as a cucumber, Tom Kernan can dress. Puts gusto into it. Pure olive oil. Milly served me that cutlet with a sprig of parsley. Take one Spanish onion. God made food, the devil the cooks. Devilled crab.’ (U 218-219)

The abundance of references to food in this particular chapter is not too surprising, if one considers that the Lestrygonians in the Odyssey were giant cannibals encountered by Odysseus during his journey back to Ithaca, and who devoured most of his men and destroyed nearly all of his ships. It is also within this specific pub episode that Joyce throws in the famous remark “God made food, the devil the cooks”: in a moment where Bloom also faces the difficulties, mistakes and vices of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Joyce reminds us of the simplicity of our human needs, which have been turned into more complex temptations, and pushing the metaphor even further, likening sinning to what could possibly an elaborate novelle cuisine dish. In the Lestrygonians episode, Bloom orders at the pub a most frightening  (to Nico, at least) gorgonzola and mustard sandwich (which apparently is still on the menu at the Davy Byrnes pub in Dublin), which he does not consume simply “with relish” like he had done with the organs,  but rather with a “relish of disgust”: ‘Mr Bloom ate his strips of sandwich, fresh clean bread, with relish of disgust, pungent mustard, the feety savour of green cheese. Sips of his wine soothed his palate.’ (U 220-221).

It is quite unimaginable to me how the two opposite tastes and contrasting textures could merge in the mouth, brought together by the neutral presence of white bread: one tangy yet smooth, the other sweet and lumpy, both strong on the taste buds… As you will have imagined, to celebrate Bloomsday Amy and I decided to make a more conventional Irish recipe, the stew, which, though maybe not quite as striking to the reader of Ulysses as fried kidneys or a gorgonzola and mustard sandwich, or as heavenly as Molly’s Liptons cherry fairy cakes, is eaten during Bloomsday and mentioned on various occasions throughout Ulysses (one of the best culinary images in literature being possibly Joyce’s, with the Dublin “policemen sweating Irish stew into their shirts.”). Some scholars have likened Ulysses to a stew and it is easy to see why: Joyce’s masterpiece has its one, unique, solid and juicy joint of meat in Dublin and in Ireland, and yet the reality it represents is everything but uniform, with all the sorts of vegetables, herbs and seasonings in it,  which give Ulysses its strong, distinct, at times perhaps repulsive, unforgettable flavour.

We also thought its quintessential Irishness would be a great way of celebrating Ireland and Joyce today, with all our Irish and non-Irish friends from the blog – Happy Bloomsday!

Irish Stew (recipe for 4 people)

This is a recipe which Amy’s granny gave us for Irish stew. Apparently it is important to resist the temptation to add Guinness – so drink it instead!


500g lamb
6 medium potatoes
1 large onion
3 carrots
Fresh thyme and rosemary, plus seasoning


Amy did this in a slow cooker (it makes the house smell amazing!) but you can do it in a pan on the hob if you want.

1. Brown the meat in a pan with some oil for a few minutes.
2. Transfer to the slow cooker and add the potatoes,  carrots, onion, herbs and seasoning.
3. Add enough boiling water to cover the ingredients  (alternatively, you can use lamb stock).
4. Cook on a low heat for 7 hours, or simmer for 2 hours in a pan.
5. Enjoy!!


James Joyce. Ulysses. London: Penguin, 2000.

5 thoughts on “‘God made food, the devil the cooks’: James Joyce’s Ulysses, or the Irish Stew

    1. Hi muttonkidneys!
      Thank you for stopping by. You’re right, Irish stew features in that episode as well!! Being able to cook it well really seems like a most desirable skill for Joyce… No wonder why!


  1. Pingback: Katie Actually

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