Shamrocks, leprechauns and pints of green beer are just a few examples of what Americans consider synonymous with St. Patrick’s Day. Among the traditions is corned beef and cabbage; a dish served in many U.S. households on March 17. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a table in Ireland serving corned beef and cabbage on St. Paddy’s Day. Believe it or not, it’s actually an American tradition. To understand why, let’s head back a couple hundred years.
The History of Corned Beef and Cabbage
Though corned beef’s production roots can be traced back to Ireland, the Irish were rarely the ones eating corned beef. During the 17th century, most people living in Ireland weren’t wealthy enough to afford beef. Pork was cheaper, and thus Irish bacon and potatoes was the more popular meal in lower-class family homes. Instead of eating corned beef, the Irish were exporting it to the English, who coined the term “corned beef” to describe the size of the salt crystals used to cure the meat, which were roughly the size of corn kernels. In a time before refrigerators, corning the beef kept it from spoiling on the long journey to England. With plenty of cattle and high-quality, inexpensive salt, Ireland produced the best corned beef on the market.
So how did corned beef become a dish associated with St. Patrick’s Day in America? It can be traced back to the influx of Irish immigrants in the early 20th century. Beef was much cheaper in the United States, and therefore an affordable dinner option for the lower class. However, the corned beef consumed in America was a little different than what the Irish had produced. Irish-Americans lived in close proximity to many pockets of Jewish communities in New York City who also made corned beef, almost exclusively from brisket. What present-day Americans know as classic corned beef and cabbage is a blend of the traditions from the two cultures: a cut of salted brisket boiled in a pot with cabbage and potatoes.
As the Irish continued to settle in the United States, they used St. Patrick’s Day as less of a religious holiday and more as a time to celebrate their heritage. And the meal that soon became associated with this celebration was—you guessed it—corned beef and cabbage.
How to Corn Beef
“Corning” is a form of curing, and as mentioned above, has nothing to do with corn. Dry-curing meat with large salt crystals was popular during the 17th century because it kept the meat from spoiling on long trips. Today, in the age of refrigeration, brining beef has largely replaced the dry salt cure. Brining meat is simple, but does take some advanced planning—typically, you should refrigerate the beef in the brine (which is simply salted water with seasonings) for up to five days before cooking. Luckily, most butchers sell corned beef that’s ready-to-cook, which means no extra brining work on your part.