Ever since I was a little kid, my mom made sure to have a big feast on St. Patrick’s Day. The meal, of course, featured corned beef. Growing up, this was a special dinner that celebrated the culture of my mother’s father’s people (he was adopted by a Scottish-Irish Catholic American family as a baby), accompanied by Irish pipes and tenors playing in the background. Now that I’m an adult, I still get a hankering for this traditional dinner, and I’m lucky to be in a city (Chicago) that celebrates like I do. Irish delis, like Harrington’s, sell so much corned beef that you have to reserve it in January to ensure you get one. Local supermarkets, like Jewel, began selling corned beef and cabbage kits, with the meat and spices to make it right. Even area restaurants offer specials on March 17 that showcase the salty meat.
Over the course of the years, I’ve had my fair share of corned beef. One day, however, I was confronted with an outrageous claim: Corned beef is not really Irish. Preposterous! Absurd! No way that’s true! To help shed light on the issue, I asked around, and I came to realize there wasn’t a whole lot of clarity on the subject. Some said it was Irish, others said it was a dish adopted by Americans of Irish descent, and others still said it was a Jewish dish. So, I did what any semi-normal, semi-educated adult of the 21st century does. I Googled it! Expecting to be directed to a series of Wikipedia, Yahoo! Answers, and Quora posts that would force me to draw my own conclusion, I was surprised to find out that The Smithsonian (yeah, the museum in Washington) did some research on it, and outlined the history quite well.
According to the findings, as shared by Shaylyn Esposito, here’s the answer to whether corned beef is Irish: Sort of. In Celtic tradition, cows were sacred animals. This meant they were primarily used for milk and other dairy products, and only eaten once the cow was…on its way out. As a result, beef of any kind was pretty uncommon. In fact, pork was, and still may be the preferred meat of the people of Ireland. In contrast, the English were big beef eaters. So much so, that they needed to rely on other countries, including Ireland, for their beef supply. Once the English assumed control over the Emerald Isle, Irish cattle became less sacred as it made its way to England. Then, in the 17th century, a law was passed forbidding the export of live cattle to England. Since there was no law outlawing the trade of butchered meat, and Ireland had loads of cattle due to the massive popularity of beef in England, they decided to ship salt-cured beef, thus jump-starting an industry.
The salt crystals used to preserve beef sent from Ireland to England were huge—about the size of a kernel of corn, in fact. As a result, the English coined the term “corned beef” to refer to the meat coming from Ireland. What’s more, because of the vast beef supply in Ireland, and the fact that they had one of the lowest salt taxes (apparently, that was a thing in those days) around, Ireland became renowned for their corned beef throughout Europe, and even America. Interestingly enough, however, the Irish people themselves rarely, if ever, consumed it. They couldn’t afford it.
The popularity and production of Irish corned beef lasted until the mid-19th century. At this time, America started producing its own and The Great Famine wiped out a significant portion of the population, either via death or migration to various locations, including America. In America, the Irish earned more money than they did at home, but still encountered discrimination. On the plus side, this meant they could now afford better food, like beef. On the minus side, they couldn’t afford any beef, only the cheaper types—corned beef, to be precise. To clarify, this was a bit different from the corned beef that originated in Ireland in the 17th century. The stuff from Ireland was absurdly salty, and that was the dominant flavor. The stuff from America was different. While salty, it still had a prominent beef flavor.
Additionally, the American variety consumed by Irish settlers was Jewish corned beef, made from kosher brisket. What differentiated it as “Irish” was that it was cooked with potatoes (an Irish comfort food) and cabbage (the cheapest vegetable out there). The Irish and Jewish people of America shared what some might consider a unique bond. They came to live in similar neighborhoods and were seemingly connected to each other through shared struggle, a strong religious (albeit different religions) background, and a similar economic status. As a result, the Irish frequented Jewish butcher shops, and the sharing of a food preference was born. This is why you find similar tastes, today, among the corned beef served at a Jewish deli, and that served at an American St. Patrick’s Day meal.
So, is corned beef Irish? Sort of. Historically, there was a time when a variety of corned beef was produced in Ireland in great quantity. The thing is, we don’t really see that type of corned beef anymore, and it probably wouldn’t resemble what we’ve come to know as corned beef today. What we currently refer to as corned beef has little to do with Ireland, strictly speaking. The people of Ireland don’t eat it. Even on St. Paddy’s, they opt for lamb or pork. What we recognize as corned beef actually has its roots in Jewish-American kosher butcher shops. That being said, Irish Americans have consumed this corned beef for decades, using it to commemorate their culture on St. Patrick’s Day by preparing it with a favorite vegetable from home (the potato), and one they (at least initially) could afford (cabbage). Over time, the meal became a traditional dinner for Irish Americans on the feast day of their patron saint.
If you are Irish-American, or just happen to find yourself inclined to partake in this tradition this year, you can make your own corned beef! Get our Corned Beef and Cabbage recipe here. Sláinte!