Last year for St. Patrick’s Day, I decided to try my hand at Corned Beef and Cabbage. Now, honestly, I don’t think I’d ever before cooked a corned beef for anything but to make corned beef hash. Certainly not as a main meal.
Primarily because I am Irish and it is not. “What??”, you say. “How can that be? Everyone who is Irish eats corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day! ” Hmmm, not quite. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
My father, born and raised between Rathkeale and Newcastle West in Co. Limerick, blessedly eats everything I make for him. Most of the time I am a pretty good cook, but there is the occasion where what I put on the table is questionably “cuisine”.
Last year’s corned beef and cabbage was one of those occasions.
In theory, if you boil the heck out of the corned beef, you really can’t go wrong. Well, I thought I boiled the heck out of it but…it was rather rubbery, not good at all, and I absolutely knew I was in trouble when my father looked up at me from his plate across the table and casually asked, “What kind of meat is this?”
As I slid down in my chair like a five-year-old, I rapidly replied, “Well, it’s St. Patrick’s Day, and it was on sale, and I thought it would be nice to try something different…(pause) Corned beef.”
“It’s a bit hard to chew, “, he said.
In thoroughbred racing jargon, my dad would be considered a “good-doer”, meaning that typically he cleans his plate, isn’t a finicky eater. But a few moments later, he placed his knife and fork side by side on the plate leaving the better part of dinner behind. We moved on to dessert.
Meat, especially pork and potatoes were staples of the Irish diet. Pork was relatively inexpensive and readily available. A preferred cut was bacon, a lean, smoked pork loin not unlike Canadian bacon. Cows were used for breeding and to supply milk and would only be slaughtered when they were no more use for milk production. Hence beef was generally too expensive for regular consumption by the Irish populace.
Even today Irish bacon, nothing like the slabs or strips we think of in America, is plentiful and frequently boiled with root vegetables for a tasty yet simple meal. A few years ago, I purchased a beautiful bacon at a butcher shop in Ireland, intending to bring it back with me and enjoy at home. I froze it solid so that it would transport well and happily put it in my suitcase. It had always been possible to bring meat from Ireland without any difficulty. Imagine my surprise when the customs officer in New York confiscated my lovely bacon telling me that I didn’t have a “certificate of authenticity” that it had been “on the hoof” in Ireland. Apparently after entering the European Union, all meat from Ireland needed to be certified because of the risk of strange diseases coming from other EU countries. Despite his assurances to the contrary, I’m reasonably certain that one immigration officer’s household had a lovely dinner that night…
Well, back to corned beef.
There are lots of theories or legends as to how Corned Beef became associated with the Irish.
Firstly, the name has nothing to do with “corn”, but rather the kernel sized salt that was used to cure the beef in order to preserve it. Since the 18th century salt has been used as a preservative for and in the curing of various kinds of meat.
One of the most plausible theories stems from the cultural collaboration and interaction between diverse ethnic groups during the great influx of immigrants to New York during the 19th century.
When the Irish immigrants arrived in the U.S., they found that the pork to which they were accustomed was much more expensive than beef. The Jewish kosher cured beef was similar to the pork and could be boiled with root vegetables to produce a meal similar to the familiar bacon. Since the Irish frequented the local Jewish delis and food carts, it is likely that they “borrowed” corned beef and made it their own. Cabbage was much less expensive and more plentiful than potatoes and so it became a worthy substitute as well.
The meal became a staple in Irish American households, easy and inexpensive to prepare. As the Irish migrated west, corned beef migrated with them. But look for it in Ireland? It is only available to tourists particularly around St. Patrick’s Day, when people go expecting to find what they think is a typical “Irish” meal.
I say, go for the bacon and the lovely floury potatoes. It is SO much better.
Which brings me back to today: St. Patrick’s Day.
As I stood in the grocery store yesterday, considering what I would buy for dinner, I was once again lured by the throngs of people poring over the array of Corned Beef on Sale. I succumbed. I purchased a nice small piece for a great price. Presumeably made by somone called O’Reilly.
But today I’m trying something different. Since early morning, it is inside in the Crock Pot, slowly simmering away, filling the house with a mouth-watering aroma. I’m hoping that 8 hours of slow cooking with lots of vegetables will improve my result.
No doubt my dad will eat it…he is so good that way. But I wonder what his comment will be this year?
Lá fhéile Pádraig sona dhuit!