For many of us in NEPA, corned beef with cabbage and potatoes is as Irish as it gets. But did you know that the dish is not as closely tied with Irish traditions as many claim it is?
Contrary to what many may believe, corned beef with cabbage and potatoes isn’t really the Irish national food. In fact, the dish is only eaten around St. Patrick’s Day here in America. So how did corned beef with cabbage become associated with the Irish? Let’s take a look at the true origin to find out.
The History of Corned Beef and Cabbage
As far as the origin of corned beef with cabbage is concerned, you should know that pork was the preferred meat in Ireland since it was affordable. In fact, if you eat at an Irish diner even today, you’ll likely find Irish bacon on their menu.
But because of the nomenclature “corned beef,” some may associate beef cattle with Ireland. Though this is not an accurate representation of the animal’s purpose. In the beginning, cattle were used for their strength in the fields, along with their milk and the other dairy products that could be produced. In Gaelic Ireland, cows were a symbol of wealth and considered sacred. The only time they would be consumed was if they were too old to work in the fields or could no longer produce milk.
Also, when cattle were eaten, it was only during a celebration. During those times, the beef was salted to be preserved.
Beef from England, Not Ireland
It was only after the British conquered most of Ireland that the average diet changed. In fact, the British ate beef and introduced potatoes into the diets of the people. According to Jeremy Rifkin, author of Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture, “so beef-driven was England that it became the first nation in the world to identify with a beef symbol. From the outset of the colonial era, the ‘roast beef’ became synonymous with the well-fed British aristocracy and middle class.”
The Cattle Acts
According to The History of Parliament Trust, “The Irish Cattle Bill was introduced in the autumn of 1666 in order to benefit English landowners by prohibiting the import of cheap cattle from Ireland.” As a result, the cost of meat available for salted beef production was lowered.
In the 17th century, the term “corned beef” was used by the British to describe the size of the salt used to cure the meat. It referred to the usage of large-grained rock salt, called “corns,” used in the salting process.
Even after the Cattle Acts, because of salt in Ireland, the country still was the go-to for corned beef. In time, Ireland began supplying Europe and America with corned beef. However, the corned beef we know today is much different than the earliest forms, as that it tastes saltier.
As the demand for beef dropped in the Americas, the struggles of the Great Famine began and many Irish immigrants made their way to America. It was then that corned beef as we know it was made.
Corned Beef with Cabbage: A Jewish-Irish Collaboration
Many Irish people started settling in New York and started making more money than they were in Ireland under British rule. And with more money, they could afford to buy meat. But instead of their favorite bacon, the Irish started consuming beef, i.e., corned beef – just what their ancestors were famous for.
However, as more Irish settled into urban areas of America, they faced great prejudice, much like those of Jewish heritage. These two cultures, which had many similarities, tended to bond together. That being said, Irish immigrants purchased most of their meat from kosher butchers. What we know as Irish corned beef is actually Jewish corned beef, made together with cabbage and potatoes.
Jewish Americans who had settled in New York City at the time were also relatively new immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe. They made their corned beef from brisket, a kosher cut of meat from the front part of the cow. Since brisket is tough in texture, it was first salted and then cooked, which resulted in the meat becoming extremely succulent and flavorful. That’s the corned beef we know and love today!
Eventually, the Irish Americans began to celebrate their homeland and culture in their home away from home. And of course, there was a celebratory meal in honor of their heritage – corned beef. This was served with potatoes and the most affordable vegetable, cabbage. Over time, corned beef with cabbage and potatoes became an integral part of these celebrations.
With the history of corned beef and cabbage debunked, now comes the question: are some of the parades and festivities that we witness each year actually part of Irish tradition? Not really.
The United States’ interest in parades and festivals was really the start of all the commotion. It wasn’t until 1970 that this changed in Ireland. Typically, bars were closed by law during festive days and many Irish Catholics abstain from alcohol because of Lenten tradition. But now, with the increase in tourism, many Irish-American traditions can be found in the home country.
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