Corned beef and cabbage: St. Patrick's tradition or not?

By Irma Wyhs
Posted

Corned beef and cabbage — what a potful of facts and/or fiction came up in a search on this food.

No, it never was a traditional food on the Emerald Isle of Ireland. No, St Patrick never ate it. Well, he may have eaten it but only the cabbage part, which probably came with potatoes.

Almost everything in Ireland was about potatoes — soup, pancakes, stew, plain, boiled with or without other ingredients.

So where and when did the so-honored dish get associated with the Irish and the great day honoring St. Patrick? Well, it actually started in this country with Irish immigrants, but not with the first immigrants who came here during the potato famine in Ireland. The famine, as illustrated by my comments above, had a devastating effect both culturally and culinarily.

Cabbage was not very popular then as the Irish looked upon it as a lowly food, thanks to the British. When the British were in ownership of the green hills and vales, they forced the Irish into slavery conditions. The Irish hoed many a row of cabbages and sometimes had little else to eat, especially when the potato — native to South America and transported here and yon by the Spanish, including Ireland where the plants grew and produced better than anywhere else — failed as a crop from late-blight disease. Many of the Irish population starved to death, unless they were able to get to another area, preferably the U.S.

Cabbage has always been around and just about everywhere. The cabbage family includes cauliflower, broccoli, turnips and numerous other veggies that are usually on every child's food list as "non-edible." However, as children grow, so does their "edible" food list, and the day comes when they will actually like cabbage and corned beef!

Beef cattle have been bred in many climates and areas of the world. However, in Ireland beef was mostly exported and was expensive for the locals who ate pork bacon instead, including with their cabbage.

When they came to this country, the Irish found that beef was much more reasonable, and so it became, once again, part of their cuisine, as it did with many other nationalities — German, Jewish and so on — but most especially the American Irish.

The origin of it being "corned" is somewhat hazy, though it was probably mostly the Brits, with whom "bully" beef was very popular. The word "corn" is from the Old English, and it refers to the nodules of salt, which they referred to as "corn" when they used it as a curing method.

As the American Irish used more and more of the product it became "Irish," and then eventually took on the serving of it as a traditional dish for the celebration day, March 17, of the famed saint of Ireland, St. Patrick.

The number of recipes for this dish, which is served in practically every restaurant, is as numerous as the leaves on a head of cabbage.

Here is my favorite, from "The Unwatched Pot." It is easy and one of the best I have had:

Corned Beef and Cabbage

3 pounds corned beef brisket (I find it best to get some that has a little fat on it — not a lot, just a little)

1 large onion, chopped

1 head of cabbage, quartered into small wedges


1/4 tsp. pepper

2 tablespoons vinegar

2 tablespoons sugar

1 cup water

Combine ingredients in cooker, with cabbage on top. Cut meat into pieces if necessary to fit pot. Cook on low 10-12 hours, or on high 6-7 hours.

Good eating and, begorrah, a happy St. Patrick's Day!

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