You might be more likely to find a leprechaun than corned beef in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day.
The salted beef brisket served in America on St. Paddy’s Day — it turns out — is not an Irish favorite.
To understand how corned beef and cabbage became associated with the patron saint of Ireland’s holiday, you have to go back. Way back.
The lush green hills of Ireland have supported cattle for more than 6,000 years, according to an article in the Journal of Culinary Sciences and Technology. Ireland’s damp climate and fertile soil were the perfect grazing grounds for cattle herds. Even today, beef is a major Irish export. In 2014, beef accounted for 22 percent of Ireland’s farming exports, according to an Irish agricultural trade publication.
Archaeologists have found cow bones in southwestern Ireland that radio-carbon dating reveals are from 4,500 B.C. Evidence also suggests the ancient Irish were among the first people to drink cow’s milk.
Beef, however, was not a staple of the Irish diet thousands of years ago. Early Irishmen revered cows as sacred symbols of wealth. Scholars believe only the most affluent ancient Irish ate beef, and even then solely on special occasions.
Most early Irishmen used cattle for transport and plowing fields. Generally, the cows were killed for their meat only when they aged out of service. Rather, the early Irish diet was heavy on dairy products like milk and butter, which left the cows alive.
It was the British — not the Irish — who hungered for beef, wrote author Jeremy Rifkin in his 1992 book, “Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of Cattle Culture.”
“So beef-driven was England that it became the first nation in the world to identify with a beef symbol,” Rifkin writes. “From the outset of the colonial era, the ‘roast beef’ became synonymous with well-fed British aristocracy and middle class.”
Historical records kept by an Irish nobleman show Ireland exported more than 75,000 cattle to England between the summers of 1663 and 1664. Cheap salt made it all possible.
Before the advent of refrigeration, salt was used to preserve meat. Because Ireland’s salt tax was one-tenth that of Britain’s, the Irish had a competitive edge. And the type of salt was just as important as the cut of beef. The low-cost salt allowed Irish cattlemen to buy superior qualities. The premium salt grains used to preserve beef were the size of corn kernels, giving “corned beef” its name.
The Irish were so good at exporting beef that their product flooded the English market. English cattle farmers intensely lobbied the British Parliament to fix the problem. Parliament bowed to pressure and passed The Cattle Act of 1667. The law effectively banned the English import of Irish cattle.
So, the Irish looked elsewhere. Business boomed as Ireland exported its salted beef to the West Indies, the Caribbean, France and even North America. The Irish port city of Cork became exceptionally skilled at curing and packing beef. In 1668, Cork’s annual shipment of corned beef was nearly 17,000 barrels — half of Ireland’s entire beef exports that year. Yet still, most Irishmen were so poor they could scarcely afford beef.
Flash forward to 1845. The Great Famine in Ireland forced millions of Irish families to flee their homes for the United States. It is worth noting in the Irish language, there is no word for willfully leaving one’s homeland, according to Mick Moloney, author of the 2002 book “Far from the Shamrock Shore: The Story of Irish-American Immigration Through Song.”
Waves of Irish immigrants cascaded onto American shores during the Great Famine. Into the 20th century, these newly minted Americans became the first major migrant group to cluster in urban centers, notably New York City.
There, Irish immigrants intermingled with established Jewish communities. They shopped in Jewish butcher shops, which sold brisket — a kosher cut of beef. This symbiotic relationship, fueled in part by the threat of anti- immigrant and anti-Semitic bigotry, is evident in comical songs from the era. Titles like 1910’s “It’s Tough When Izzy Rosenstein Loves Genevieve Malone,” highlight the juxtaposition of distinctly Jewish and Irish surnames coalescing.
The interethnic cross- cooperation may explain why the Irish purchased corned beef from Jewish butchers in American cities, note Mairtin Iomaire and Padriac Gallagher in their Journal of Culinary Sciences and Technology article, published by the Dublin Institute of Technology in 2011.
In America, the Irish opted for beef over their native choice of pork, possibly because of how comparably affordable beef was in their new home, but also because pork is prohibited in the Jewish kosher diet. Cabbage was added as a side because of its low cost.
Brisket is one of nine prime cuts of beef, and the salt-curing and slow-cooking process used by the Irish gives the beef the tender, familiar form enjoyed today. Even President Abraham Lincoln was a fan; corned beef and cabbage was the main entree at his Inauguration Day luncheon May 4, 1861.
Troy Wainright, a third-generation butcher at W.J. Wainright and Sons in Nahunta, explained brisket comes from the frontal chest area of a cow.
“Briskets are a cut of meat that you only get one shot at,” Wainright said. “What I mean by this is that each cow only has one.”
He said when choosing a brisket in the market, look for younger cows.
“When selecting, a more white color of fat will indicate a younger cow, while a more yellow fat will indicate an older cow,” he said. “Obviously, younger is better.”
Corned beef quickly became a celebrated dish in the Irish-American community. Futhermore, it was widely doled out to soldiers during World War II, likely adding to the food’s popularity and acceptance in American culture. The ease with which corned beef can be prepared is also part of its draw.
“When I grew up in the 60s and 70s, it was a convenience thing,” said John Belechak, chef at Palmer’s Village Cafe on St. Simons Island. “My mom worked and my dad was in the Navy. She had to take care of the kids, and it was just one of those things. ‘Hey, we can cut this up, put it in the Crock-Pot and boom! It’ll be ready when I get home.’”
Corned beef has also proved versatile. At Palmer’s Village Cafe, Belechak uses it to make a breakfast hash.
“It’s not just a St. Patrick’s Day meal,” Belechak said, who is of Slovakian descent. “It’s one of those meals that can be thrown in a Crock-Pot and fabricated without haste for families. It’s very appealing, budget-wise, and it’s got a lot of history behind it.”
While the salty, splintery meat never quite caught on in Ireland, it is today a mainstay in Irish-American culture. It has — to Americans — become as Irish as a four-leafed clover.