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?

Canadian bacon left, U.S. bacon top, U.K. bacon bottom

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.

Pastures near Cliffs of Moher. Photo by Shaylyn Esposito

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.

Detailed map showing where the Irish settled in the U.S. 1890 census.

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

Happy St. Paddy’s Day

As did so many Irish immigrants after the potato famine in Ireland, in 1930 my Dad came through Ellis Island with his parents and younger brother. Growing up as the daughter of an Irish-born father, I can’t remember ever celebrating St. Patrick’s Day.  Irish Soda Bread, corned beef and cabbage (we called it a “boiled dinner”) and Irish whiskey were served and enjoyed all year long. Wearin’ o’ the green?  Never heard that phrase growing up.  Shamrocks, leprechauns, pots of gold … where did all this come from?

St. Patrick’s Day was a religious day, the honoring of St. Patrick, who, we were told, drove the snakes out of Ireland*.   As the patron saint of Ireland, Saint Patrick, was born in Britain (ruled then by the Romans) in the 5th century.  As a teenager, he was kidnapped and brought to Ireland to be sold as a slave.  Somehow he was able to escape and returned to his family, but through dreams he turned to religion and became a priest in Roman Catholicism.  Years later he returned to Ireland and brought Christianity with him.  st.patrickSt. Patrick is believed to have died on March 17th.  Since the 9th or 10th century, people in Ireland have been observing this day as the Roman Catholic feast day of St. Patrick.

But when did the day of St. Patrick’s death become this huge world-wide celebration with parades, green beer and Leprechaun emojis?

After the potato famine decimated Ireland in 1845, more than one million poor Irish Catholics escaped to America to avoid starvation.  America was, up until that time, primarily a Protestant middle-class society.  When the Irish arrived, they were looked down upon because of their thick Irish brogues and for their radical religious beliefs.  Work was not to be found.  Signs “Irish Need Not Apply” were everywhere.   Whether it was hatred or fear, the Irish were persecuted wherever they went.  Being portrayed as drunks and violent abusers, the Irish had to fight racial prejudice and stereotypes.  The road was difficult, but not impossible.  Eventually most became laborers and then moved into the trades.

But they soon began to realize that their large numbers gave them a bit of political power.  Settling in cities like Boston, New York, and Chicago, Irish immigrants started to organize and became politically connected, some eventually becoming politicians themselves.  Known as “The Green Machine” these immigrants began to be an important swing vote for politicians.  St. Patrick’s Day parades became organized by the Irish community in America as a show of strength, and became a “must attend” event for all political candidates (and still is).

Irish Famine Memorial--Boston MA

Irish Famine Memorial–Boston MA

As my grandfather would say “the Irish are natural-born politicians”.  Perhaps this endearing “gift of gab” as he would call it was a result of kissing the Blarney Stone.  As Irish politician, John O’Connor Power, defined it : “Blarney is something more than mere flattery.  It is flattery sweetened by humour and flavoured by wit.”  And who has those traits more than the Irish.

So now we have St. Patrick’s Day celebrations all across America and around the world.  Yes, even in London, England!

♣ The oldest celebration is in Savannah, Georgia, which is believed to have begun in 1813.  St. Patrick’s Day is the city’s biggest event, bringing in hundreds of thousands of visitors over the three days.  The Budweiser Clydesdales lead the parade and not only will Miss St. Patrick’s Day be crowned, Miss Teen St. Patrick’s Day will be crowned as well.
♣  In South America, Buenos Aires is actually home to the fifth-largest Irish community in the world.  Dancing in the street with live music and dance performances featuring traditional Irish bans and Irish rock groups.  No crowning of Miss Patrick’s Day here, they select the best “Leprechaun”.
♣  In Chicago, not only do they have a world-class parade and a crowning of the “Queen”, but they actually dye the Chicago River GREEN!  This tradition has been going on since 1962 thanks to Mayor Daley’s friend and head of the Plumbers Union.
♣  In Toronto, they hope to have over one million people lining the parade route.  The city has actually turned this event into a multi-cultural one, with over 32 countries represented.
♣  In Sydney, Australia, the Sydney Opera House as well as the rest of ST-PATRICK-DAY-PARADE-DUBLINthe city, turns green with special lighting effects.  Spectacular!
♣  In Montserrat, British West Indies, St. Patrick’s Day is a public holiday. Celebrated over 10 days, this island has different
events scheduled for every day.
♣  Munich Germany, London England, New York City, and, of course, Boston, the celebrations for St. Patrick are worldwide!!

For all the Irish everywhere, and those becoming Irish even if just for the day, I say . . .

                                                                          May the Irish hills caress you.
                                                                    May her lakes and rivers bless you.
                                                                   May the luck of the Irish enfold you.
                                                        May the blessings of Saint Patrick behold you.


P.S. * And just in case you were wondering, there are no snakes in Ireland.  Just saying!

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References:  Chicago St. Patrick’s Day, Fodor’s, History, Wikepedia