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Is Corned Beef and Cabbage Irish?

Updated on March 13, 2011
St. Patrick, the patron Saint of Ireland.
St. Patrick, the patron Saint of Ireland.

Top O' The morning. Growing up, I always clung to my Irish Heritage, more so than my parents. Still, there was always a reserved pride amongst the Reilly clan in the hardships their predecessors had encountered as immigrants to the United States. As such, there was the occasional nod to our roots, such as corned beef and cabbage on St. Paddy's day. I loved it and embraced the custom. As I would learn later in life, the Irish side of my family played a little loose with the facts.

It turns out, you won't find any corned beef and cabbage being served in Ireland on St. Paddy's day or on Easter. Not they don't have it and occasionally eat it. But it wouldn't be odd to find an Irishman who had never tried it. It's just not that special, so it's not something for a special day like St. Patrick's day. Ask an Irishman, and he will tell you, “That's a yank thing.” I felt I my chain had been “yanked.”

So how did this happen? How did corned beef and cabbage become this American Irish tradition? And while we're at it, what the hell does corn have to do with it? To get to the bottom of the story, one has to go way back into Irish History.

The people who lived here probably ate corned beef, but us peasants couldn't afford it.
The people who lived here probably ate corned beef, but us peasants couldn't afford it. | Source

What The Irish Eat

The Irish weren't strangers to corned beef by any means. They made it and were the first exporters of corned beef, and the biggest exporters until 1825. But beef was expensive—as was the salt used to cure it—and out of reach for peasants. A poem from the 12th century tells us that corned beef was a delicacy fit for a king, so only the rich would have eaten it. In fact, it's only been in the last century that beef has become a major part of the Irish diet. So if the Irish don't eat corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's day, what do they eat?

In Ireland, you're much more likely to find boiled bacon and cabbage on the table. It sounds odd until we consider what it is the Irish call bacon. It's a pork joint—meaning a roast of some sort, such as pork butt—or really any cut of pork except the leg, which like us, they call a ham. So at least we got the cabbage part right. But how did Americans come to eat corned beef on St. Patrick's day?

Irish immigrants  arrive in New York.
Irish immigrants arrive in New York. | Source

What Does 'Corned' Mean

When the Irish settled in New York in the late 19th century (when my ancestors came), both beef and salt were less expensive, so they treated beef in the same manner they would have treated their bacon; cured in salt then boiled with spices. Which brings us to the corn.

To cure the beef (or pork in Ireland), the meat was covered in pellets of salt the size of corn kernels, hence “corned beef.” That was before refrigeration, so the salting was for preservation of the meat and would require the meat be soaked prior to cooking to remove some of the salt. These days, meat is brined in a salty liquid for flavor, not for preservation, but the name “corned” has stuck. Incidentally, many will still soak the meat prior to cooking to remove excess salt, and even change the cooking water a couple of times during cooking.

Ah. Traditional Irish American Corned Beef and Cabbage.
Ah. Traditional Irish American Corned Beef and Cabbage. | Source

Pots Of Gold

I still love corned beef and cabbage, and in a sense, it's still an expression of my Irish heritage: My Irish American heritage. Nor do I think St. Patrick's day is the only day it can be enjoyed. The corned beef hash made from leftovers is divine, and the water used to boil the corned beef is an excellent, rich stock.

So you're not likely to find and corned beef and cabbage in Ireland, unless it's on the menu at a place that caters to American tourists. Oh. And you'll never hear an Irishman say, “Top O' the mornin',” either. You will however, find leprechauns and pots of gold at the ends of rainbows.


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