How did corned beef and cabbage become associated with the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day? It just seems strange to me … especially considering you’ll be hard pressed to find corned beef in Ireland. Cabbage? No problem. It’s plentiful and prevalent in many dishes … along with potatoes, turnips, carrots. Colcannon (cabbage and potatoes) being the most popular cabbage dish. I think the dish that comes closest in Ireland to what we call Corned Beef and Cabbage is Cabbage and Bacon.
But don’t get confused. Bacon in the U.K. is slightly different from bacon here in the U.S., we get our ‘bacon’ from the belly of the pig and it’s almost always smoked. Most of us like our bacon cooked til crisp. In the U.K., bacon comes from the back of the pig and usually not smoked … and definitely not fried til crisp. U.S. bacon is available in the U.K., but it’s referred to as ‘streaky bacon’ (probably because of the streaky layers of fat). We, on the other hand, generally refer to U.K. bacon as Canadian bacon (the fat is on the outside), not that it is, of course. Have I confused you?
Why am I trying to explain the difference in bacon? Because Cabbage and Bacon is a heartier dish than we imagine, more like Cabbage and Ham, and is definitely old fashioned ‘comfort’ food in Ireland. In fact, you’re more likely to use a ‘joint’ of ham when making Cabbage and Bacon. But what isn’t ‘comfort’ food in Ireland is Corned Beef and Cabbage. In fact, Corned Beef and Cabbage doesn’t even exist in Ireland. Why then is it so endemic to celebrating St. Paddy’s Day here in the States?
Let’s start at the beginning. Although the British had been ruling Ireland since the takeover in the 12th century, Brits did not live there, preferring to be absentee landowners. In Ireland, cattle were beasts of burden and unless they were old and not able to plow the fields, or the cows to produce milk, they were not slaughtered. Cattle was a sign of wealth and the only time one might be slaughtered was if there was a festival or celebration. And, even then, it was only the wealthy English landowners who could afford to part with this valuable beast of burden. Pigs were, and still are, the most prevalent animal raised to be eaten.
The English, however, were ‘beef eaters’ (the tag name given to the Queen’s guards). In fact, Englishman, Robert Bakewell is credited with creating ‘selective breeding’ and was the first person to breed cattle for the beef industry, increasing their size and quality of meat. Eventually the beef industry in Ireland grew and tens of thousands of cattle were being transported from the English-owned cattle farms in Ireland to England; but the government (as government’s always do) became involved and prohibited the transportation of live animals. Now what to do? Ireland had an abundance of salt and the process of salting to preserve food goes back throughout history. Thus began the slaughtering of cattle and salting of the beef to preserve it. The size of the salt crystals used to preserve the meat were enormous, as large as corn kernels some said … and so the name for this very salty, preserved meat soon became referred to as “corned” beef.
Irish ‘corned beef‘ was relatively inexpensive and, because of its ability to be stored for long periods of time, became in demand around Europe. Although this was a huge export product for Ireland, the Irish couldn’t afford to buy or eat it. It was the English who owned and controlled the industry. Sadly, the Irish, who were producing this valuable export product could, at best, only afford potatoes and a bit of pork.
Now fast forward to the heartbreaking potato famine which decimated Ireland beginning in 1845 and lasted seven long years. It is estimated that well over a million Irish families escaped to America to avoid starvation. Most landed at Ellis Island in New York City and, for lack of funds to move on, were forced to settle in the run-down tenement areas along the waterfront and in the Jewish neighborhoods.
The Jews were also new immigrants to America and were living in these same run-down, tenement areas. The two groups formed a sort of kinship. Both groups were discriminated against, forced from their homelands, penniless and starting their lives over. As they started to settle in and progress financially, businesses began opening up, jobs were had and, finally, there was money for food. The Irish began purchasing their meats from Kosher butcher shops, which sold a version of “corned beef”, much different from what they once produced. But, it was delicious and they grew to love it. All of which brings us back to today and Corned Beef and Cabbage!The cabbage, potatoes, turnips and carrots are traditional, but the Jewish-style brisket is definitely American born. To celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, Irish Americans today (and those wanting to be Irish) will pin a shamrock on their lapel, order a green beer and enjoy Corned Beef and Cabbage. From high-end, fine dining restaurants to local mom and pop diners, on kitchen tables and celebrations across the country, we’ll all be tucking in to this homespun dish. You still, however, won’t see it served in Ireland.
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References: Wisegeek, Smithsonian, History Place, Irish Central, History, Wikipedia