Corned beef and cabbage, no matter what we’ve been raised to believe, isn’t a national Irish dish, and the tradition of eating it on Saint Patrick’s Day, far from being Irish, is as American as mom and apple pie.
Similarly American are Saint Patrick’s Day parades—the first was held in New York City in 1762—and it’s Americans (trust us) who invented green beer.
On March 17, the Irish are much more likely to eat bacon with their cabbage, and to down a pint or two of (non-green) Guinness. In fact, until relatively recent times, they didn’t even get the Guinness. Saint Patrick’s Day in Ireland traditionally was a religious holiday. The pubs closed down and people went to church.
Ireland has a long history of producing and exporting corned beef, but historically, most Irish never got a chance to eat it. In ancient Ireland, cattle were valuable property, the contemporary equivalent of money in the bank. They were kept for milk and labor, and were only slaughtered, reluctantly, when they were well past their prime. The majority of the population lived on milk, grains, and bacon. Only the richest of the rich ate beef. The earliest mention of corned beef seems to have appeared in a 12th-century poem poking fun at King Cathal Mac Finguine, a notorious glutton.
So what is it? Corned beef actually has nothing to do with corn. “Corn” is an archaic term for kernel—that is, anything vaguely seed-sized—and in this case refers to the coarse granules of sea or rock salt that were originally used to preserve the beef. According to Sue Shephard’s Pickled, Potted, and Canned: How the Art and Science of Food Preserving Changed the World, at some point in the 17th century, it was discovered that adding saltpeter to the salt made for even better keeping qualities. This apparently came to light after a nameless and nervous-making experimenter decided to rub his hanging game with gunpowder. (Saltpeter, chemically potassium nitrate, is the prime constituent of gunpowder; other ingredients are sulfur and charcoal.) Saltpeter is effective because it kills Clostridium botulinum, the agent that causes botulism. At the same time, by interacting with myoglobin, an essential protein in muscle, added saltpeter (or, commonly today, added nitrites) turns salted meat an attractive pink, as opposed to the saltpeter-less meat’s dingy gray.
A recipe for corned beef from Mary Randolph’s 1824 The Virginia House-Wife calls for treating a piece of brisket with “two large spoonsful of pounded salt-petre,” a gill of molasses, and a quart of salt. After four days, Mrs. Randolph tells us, this will be ready to eat. She seems to be doubtful as to its keeping qualities, since she recommends storing it in the ice-house.
In general, though, corned beef has a long shelf life. By the 17th century, Irish corned beef was big business —largely driven by the big British appetite for beef. The Irish benefited from a low salt tax, which was a tenth of that levied on British salt imports, and therefore were able to import high-quality salt on the cheap from France, Portugal, and Spain. They, or at least their British landlords, also had lush pastures for fattening cattle.
The combination of affordable salt and plentiful cows resulted in a booming transatlantic trade: Irish corned beef fed the British and French armies and navies, the North American colonists, and plantation owners in the West Indies.
It didn’t, however, feed the Irish. Corned beef, for most Irish families, was far too expensive. By the 19th century, the native Irish were subsisting almost entirely on potatoes. For the one million Irish who emigrated to the United States in the wake of the devastating potato famine of 1845-52, their first taste of corned beef was almost certainly in America.
The corned beef they ate was most likely Jewish, obtained from kosher butchers and delis in abutting immigrant neighborhoods and simmered at home in a pot along with cabbage, turnips, or potatoes. Inexpensive and easy to make, corned beef and cabbage became an Irish immigrant staple. Inevitably, from its popularity on Irish-American dinner tables, it became associated with American celebrations of Saint Patrick’s Day.
The Irish weren’t the only ones to love it. Adopted across the Northeast as New England boiled dinner, corned beef and cabbage – maybe with a few carrots and potatoes – remains the epitome of the solid, down-to-earth, no-frills meal. Abraham Lincoln loved it: the main course for his inaugural dinner on March 4, 1861, was corned beef and cabbage, accompanied by mock turtle soup, parsley potatoes, blackberry pie, and coffee. So did Grover Cleveland, who ranked it among his favorites, along with pickled herring, oatmeal, and snickerdoodles.
And in March, 1965, astronaut John Young was fond enough of corned beef to sneak a sandwich into space on board the Gemini 3 mission, America’s first two-man space flight. Mission Control was peeved and Young and partner Gus Grissom got a reprimand from Congress. That corned-beef sandwich, embedded in acrylic, is now on display at the Grissom Memorial Museum in Mitchell, Indiana.
Want to make your own corned beef for Saint Paddy’s Day? Try this recipe from the Food Network’s Alton Brown.
Would you rather skip the beef and make authentic Irish soda bread? Find Irish chef Darina Allen’s recipe in What the Real Irish Eat on St. Patrick’s Day.