Why are millions of Irish-Americans serving corned beef on St Patrick’s Day?
There’s a good reason corned beef and cabbage is known in the US as the dish of Ireland
Corned beef: first mentioned in an ancient Irish poem
We can be pretty impatient with our American cousins. “No, Lucky Charms are not a thing here,” we say, disassociating ourselves with marshmallow shamrocks and sugary cereal. “No, I do NOT have a recipe for corned beef and cabbage, what even is that?”
How did Americans manage to mix up bacon with corned beef? God, what eejits they are, we say to ourselves, not realising that we are being misinformed jerks. The corned beef and cabbage thing is not a straightforward case of lost in transatlantic translation. It’s with good reason that corned beef and cabbage is known in the US as the dish of Ireland.
What is corned beef, anyway? In its purest form (ie not a tin of Spam), it’s salt-cured beef. It’s known as corned beef because the grains of rock salt used to cure it can be referred to as corns of salt. In his 2002 book Salt: A World History, American journalist Mark Kurlansky explained “it was the seventeenth-century English who gave corned beef its name – corns being any kind of small bits, in this case salt crystals.” But what’s the corned beef Irish connection?
The Cú Chulainn connection
In Irish mythology, cattle are often portrayed as prized possessions. The value of beef is used as a storytelling technique in tales such as the Táin Bó Cúailnge, or the Cattle Raid of Cooley, when Queen Medb of Connacht and her husband Ailill tried to steal Donn Cúailnge, the Brown Bull of Cooley, only for teenage hero Cú Chulainn to get in their way.
A poet named Aniér MacConglinne is the narrator of the 11th or 12th century Irish poem Aislinge Meic con Glinne/The Vision of Mac Conglinne. In the poem, MacConglinne goes on a quest to free King Cathal mac Finnguine of a demon of gluttony living in the King’s throat. This poem is food-filled in its imagery; MacConglinne has a dream where the whole land that lays before him is made of food, from bridges made of butter to thresholds made of bread. This poem is also thought to be the first written reference to corned beef, name-checked here as a delicacy to lure the demon from the king’s belly to allow it to be captured in a cauldron.
So, we know that corned beef has been part of some Irish people’s diets for quite some time. Aislinge Meic con Glinne appears to back up the idea that corned beef was a delicacy that only kings and chieftains could avail of. This idea of cured beef being a luxury prevailed right up until the 19th century, when Ireland was a big producer and exporter of corned beef and other beef products on behalf of the British Empire.
Salt-cured or spiced
According to an academic paper published in 2011, Irish Corned Beef: A Culinary History, by Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire (DIT) and Pádraic Óg Gallagher (Gallagher’s Boxty House), Cork was a key production centre for corned beef in the 18th and 19th century. This perhaps explains the continued prevalence today of salt-cured or spiced beef in Cork’s English Market and by butchers such as the fifth-generation McKarthy’s of Kanturk.
Even when corned beef was being produced for export here, Irish people themselves didn’t tend to eat it because it was still too expensive, favouring instead the cheaper meat of pork. A bacon joint was an accessible treat for the Irish kitchen, paired with cabbage most probably grown next to the spuds in the garden plot.
When the Famine in the 1840s kicked off a huge wave of emigration to the United States, the Irish folks who arrived stateside found it was pork that was expensive and beef that was cheap. It’s thought that the kosher cured brisket sold by Jewish butchers of New York City became very popular with Irish immigrants, with corned beef replacing bacon as a St Patrick’s Day centrepiece for Irish-American families.
So, the next time you see an American food blog sharing a recipe for corned beef and cabbage around St Patty’s Day, you might be a little less inclined to roll your eyes.