In A Nutshell
Most “traditional” St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the United States are built around corned beef and cabbage as the main dish. In truth, beef was never even a popular menu item in Ireland. While the vaguely similar salt beef was a major export of Ireland in the 17th century, today’s popular dish was purely an invention of Irish immigrants and their Jewish neighbors.
The Whole Bushel
Historically, beef wasn’t a main staple of the Irish diet. Cows and oxen were much more useful working in the fields or being raised for their milk than they were for their meat. Lamb and pork were the everyday meats, and when beef was eaten it was usually only from cows that had outlived other useful purposes. Even then, it was an expensive luxury that was well beyond the means of most families. For generations, the main staples of the Irish diet were salted pork, bacon, and potatoes.
Ireland does, however, have a history of exporting corned beef, though most Americans wouldn’t recognize it. “Corning” refers to a process of salting and preserving beef, necessary in a time before refrigeration. When the English moved into Ireland, they brought cattle with them to the previously pork- and lamb-oriented country. Beef was expensive, though, and the Irish that raised the cattle couldn’t afford it for themselves. Instead, beef was exported back to England, heavily corned and salted for the trip. Huge numbers of cattle, massive salt reserves, and very low taxes on salt made corned beef much more viable as an export than a consumable. This corned beef of the 17th century bears little resemblance to the corned beef of America today, and was largely just salt-laden pieces of beef.
So why do we think of corned beef and cabbage as being the traditional, go-to meal for St. Patrick’s Day?
Because of the Irish immigrants who flooded America in the 1800s.
When masses of Irish immigrants came to America to escape a homeland ravaged by famine and strife, they also wanted to hold on to their heritage. This led to the first St. Patrick’s Day parade ever being celebrated not in Ireland, but in New York City. It also cultivated a strong ethnic identity in a people that had already been forced from their homeland, who were met with overwhelming racial discrimination in their new American home. The large Irish population in New York City soon settled in alongside another of America’s downtrodden groups—the Jewish.
While the Irish immigrants kept their taste for salted pork, they found that pork wasn’t an affordable type of meat in America. So instead they found another, cheaper option in the Jewish delis of New York City—beef brisket. Cheap, kosher cuts of beef, prepared in a way that was similar to Irish bacon, brought back memories of home. The corning process that they were familiar with took what was usually a tough cut of meat and transformed it into something that could be cut with the edge of a fork.
And why cabbage? The overwhelming majority of Irish immigrants struggled to make ends meet on a daily basis, and cabbage was a cheap alternative to the potatoes that they were used to. And it didn’t take long for cooks to realize that cooking the cabbage with the brisket during the corning process completely changed the flavor.
Corned beef and cabbage became a staple among Irish immigrants. It was cheap, it was hearty, it was easy to make, and it had a flavor that reminded them of their homeland. Now, it’s widely known in America as a traditional Irish dish, when it’s actually a relatively new idea in the scheme of Irish history.
Show Me The Proof
Smithsonian: Is Corned Beef Really Irish?
USDA Blog: How Corned Beef and Cabbage Became a Holiday Staple
Corned Beef and Cabbage Is as Irish as Spaghetti and Meatballs