Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The History of Corned Beef and Cabbage

While most Americans associate Corned Beef and Cabbage with St. Patrick's Day as a traditional Irish food it actually has its roots here in America.
Corned beef is first found in a 12th century poem that tells us that corned beef was a delicacy given to a king in an attempt to conjure "the demon of gluttony" out of his belly. Its status as a delicacy doesn't make much sense until it is understood that beef was not a major part of the common Irish diet until the last century. Cattle were kept from early times for their dairy products not for their meat. Corned beef surfaces again in the late 1600's as a specialty that was a costly delicacy because of the expensive salt used. It was made to be eaten at Easter and sometimes for Halloween. The Irish were the biggest exporters of corned beef from the 1600's until 1825. It was their chief export and sent all over the world. By the 17th century salting beef had become a major industry for Irish port cities where Irish beef was salt cured and exported to France, England and eventually to America. The term "corned" comes from putting meat in a large crock and covering it with large rock-salt kernals of salt. These were refered to as "corns of salt".
With the majority of Irish beef being exported, beef was too expensive and unavailable to the majority of Irish citizens. Cows were only slaughtered after they were no longer good for milking and sheep were only raised as a source of wool. Hogs and pigs were the only livestock raised by the peasantry for consumption. Salt pork and bacon then became the commonly consumed meat of Irish tables. Even today many Irish people still consider corned beef to poor or plain to be eaten on a holiday..
After the Great Potato Famine of the mid 19th century brought hundreds of Irish emigrants to America. The new Irish Americans found corned beef to be more accessible and more affordable than in Ireland. Both corned beef and green cabbage were ingredients of the lower class, due to the inexpensive nature of salt cured beef and green cabbage.. When many Irish immigrants came over in the 1800's they found that Jewish corned beef was similar in texture so they used it for their holiday celebrations.
While both corned beef and cabbage have connections to Ireland the serving of it for St. Patrick's Day dinner is an Irish American tradition, that would be hard to find served in Ireland unless in a tourist heavy area. As the stigma of eating working class food faded and the celebration of Irish ancestry grew, corned beef and cabbage became a staple meal for many Americans in March.
So if you are planning on having some corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick's Day then be happy to know that you are participating in a tradition that is wholly Irish American.

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