Whether you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day or not (which is coming up on March 17th, btw), it is a good time to think about the delicious Irish-American dish of Corned Beef and Cabbage. Even though I did not have any Irish heritage, my mother would make corned beef with cabbage at least twice a year, and I have very fond memories of the comfort food served along with rice pilaf made of butter and dried scallops.
So what exactly is the history of corned beef? Is it really Irish? Well, it turns out that it is not so authentically Irish after all. According to the recent History channel article here, from the arrival of first immigrants from Ireland to the United States in 1762, over the next 100 years, Irish immigration to the United States exploded. The new wave of immigrants brought their own food traditions, including soda bread and Irish stew. Pork was the preferred meat, since it was cheap in Ireland and ubiquitous on the dinner table. The favored cut was Irish bacon, a lean, smoked pork loin similar to Canadian bacon. But in the United States, pork was prohibitively expensive for most newly arrived Irish families, so they began cooking beef—the staple meat in the American diet—instead.
So how did pork and potatoes become corned beef and cabbage? Irish immigrants to America lived alongside other “undesirable” European ethnic groups that often faced discrimination in their new home, including Jews and Italians. Members of the Irish working class in New York City frequented Jewish delis and lunch carts, and it was there that they first tasted corned beef. Cured and cooked much like Irish bacon, it was seen as a tasty and cheaper alternative to pork. And while potatoes were certainly available in the United States, cabbage offered a more cost-effective alternative to cash-strapped Irish families. Cooked in the same pot, the spiced, salty beef flavored the plain cabbage, creating a simple, hearty dish that couldn’t be easier to prepare.
Corned beef and cabbage is another evidence of good things coming out of crossing cultures.
Here is an easy recipe from the Today show to try at home, along with a recipe for Gur cake as well.
If you’d like to try the traditional dish at a restaurant, you can try a local Irish pub, or any of these restaurants in the New York City area.
Photo from the History channel article
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