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The Truth about Corned Beef

Every year around St. Patrick’s day in the U.S. the grocery stores start putting corned beef brisket on sale, and restaurants and pubs add corned beef and cabbage to their menus as an Irish entrée. Unfortunately, corned beef and cabbage, even when accompanied by potatoes, is more American (or Germanic) than Irish; we’d do better to celebrate Irish cuisine with salmon or colcannon.

image of cooked slab of corned beef, partially sliced
Corned beef © BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons

Corned beef is not really very Irish, though it is very American (and Germanic). Pork was a staple of the Irish diet, particularly in the form of bacon. Historically, the Irish raised pigs for meat, and beef for milk. If you butchered a cow, you did it in late October or early November, at Samain. By March that meat, even if you had cured it by corning it, was gone. When Irish immigrants arrived in Boston and New York, their beloved Irish bacon was not available; what was available was corned beef, thanks to Jewish delis and butchers in New York, and the New England Boiled Dinner popularized by German immigrants to Massachusetts and other New England states. Corned beef is simply beef preserved with salt, a process known as corning.

The Irish immigrants, unable to locate or in some cases, afford the distinctively different Irish bacon, traditionally served with cabbage and potatoes, possibly with carrots or other vegetables, turned to corned beef, and Irish Americans perpetuated the local cuisine.

Historically, beef in Ireland was a luxury (now, beef is often cheaper than mutton); in the middle ages, cows were prized for their milk. Dairy products were so important in medieval Irish diets that cheeses and similar milk products were called “white meats.” In the eleventh century medieval Irish satire Aislinge Meic Con Glinne/The Vision of MacConglinne, MacConglinne attempts to entice a “demon of gluttony” to exit an abbot by preparing a magnificent feast that includes

juicy old bacon, and tender corned-beef, and full-fleshed wether, and honey in the comb, and English salt on a beautiful polished dish of white silver, along with four perfectly straight white hazel spits to support the joints.

This is very clearly an over-the-top outrageous feast, and the use of corned beef in the feast points up that it was considered luxurious, and down-right extravagant.

Pork was by far the more common meat, even after the English conquest, since what beef there was was exported to England (especially during the Napoleanic wars), leaving potatoes, fish, pork and cabbage for the native Irish. You’ll find Irish families and restaurants even now having gammon, or a roast joint of pork, as a family dinner. The Irish emigrating to America continued to bring Irish cuisine and traditions with them though of necessity modifying them to suit the new land.