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St. Paddy’s Day Corned Beef: The Traditional Non-Traditional Meat

St Paddy’s Day is officially tomorrow March 17th. In the States certain foods have become synonymous with the holiday including corned beef. As if often the case, many traditions arise from practicality. According to this Smithsonian article, corned beef was never actually a popular meat in Ireland itself. In fact for generations, cows, not unlike in India were held almost sacred because they were used to plow the fields.

When the British invaded, they brought their love of beef over:

The British invented the term “corned beef” in the 17th century to describe the size of the salt crystals used to cure the meat, the size of corn kernels. After the Cattle Acts, salt was the main reason Ireland became the hub for corned beef. Ireland’s salt tax was almost 1/10 that of England’s and could import the highest quality at an inexpensive price. With the large quantities of cattle and high quality of salt, Irish corned beef was the best on the market. It didn’t take long for Ireland to be supplying Europe and the Americas with its wares. But, this corned beef was much different than what we call corned beef today. With the meat being cured with salt the size of corn kernels, the taste was much more salt than beef.

Unfortunately, the Irish doing the cattle production couldn’t afford to eat the meat themselves, relying on the potato instead. During the Great Famine in the mid-19th century many immigrated to the U.S, specifically New York. Despite prejudice, they did better financially in the States and could finally afford meat, specifically inexpensive corned beef.

Yet, the corned beef the Irish immigrants ate was much different than that produced in Ireland 200 years prior. The Irish immigrants almost solely bought their meat from kosher butchers. And what we think of today as Irish corned beef is actually Jewish corned beef thrown into a pot with cabbage and potatoes. The Jewish population in New York City at the time were relatively new immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe. The corned beef they made was from brisket, a kosher cut of meat from the front of the cow. Since brisket is a tougher cut, the salting and cooking processes transformed the meat into the extremely tender, flavorful corned beef we know of today.

I’m looking forward to the traditional corned beef, cabbage, potatoes and soda bread however inauthentic it may be. It’s only once a year after all. I may even sip on a Guinness (no green beer) while contemplating the mix of immigrant cultures that brought the food to the table. Happy St. Paddy’s Day.


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