As soon as St Paddy’s Day appears on our calendars, plans begin to be made for a day of Guinness, green cocktails, Lucky Charms, and of course, the most important part: corned beef and cabbage. Every year, we turn to this salty, hearty, comforting meal to help rescue ourselves from all that alcohol, and every year it’s declared the tastiest, most satisfying dish, which we then proceed to forget about until St Patrick’s Day rolls around again the following year.
Although corned beef and cabbage is considered to be the ultimate Irish dish by many Americans, it’s not actually what they’ll be eating in Dublin on St Paddy’s Day. In Ireland, beef used to be an expensive luxury, and definitely not readily available for the masses to dine on daily, so their staple was salted bacon, served with cabbage and root vegetables. Pork was much cheaper than beef — corned beef was a prized possession in eighteenth-century Dublin — so this was the comforting meal they enjoyed, and which was eaten religiously on St Patrick’s Day every year.
It was only when the first Irish immigrants began making their way to the USA in the nineteenth century that corned beef became associated with Irish cuisine. Ironically, in America, the Irish encountered the opposite situation to the one they had experienced at home: Here pork was prohibitively expensive, but beef was relatively cheap. Cabbage was still one of the most affordable vegetables on this side of the Atlantic, so that part of the dish stuck, despite the change in the type of meat.
Many sources claim that it was the proximity of Irish and Jewish communities in America that led to corned beef finding its way into Irish cuisine, but it could also have been because corned beef is a very close replica of the bacon they were used to eating at home. In fact, thanks to the pink curing salt used to make corned beef, it even looks fairly similar. It came to be such an Irish staple that New York bars would often serve a free dinner of corned beef and cabbage to the Irish workers who would come in after work, have a few drinks, and dine on their new version of traditional Irish fare.
Corned beef and cabbage — also known as the ‘New England boiled dinner’ — is not the ultimate Irish way to celebrate St Patricks’ Day, but rather the ultimate Irish-American way. And that’s how we’ll be celebrating, either in our American homes where we’ll be following this recipe for classic corned beef and cabbage, or drinking, dancing, and dining in our favorite Irish-American pubs.