Dig your “Kiss me I’m Irish” T-shirt from the drawer, get ready to guzzle pints of green beer, and crank up your Crock Pot for corned beef and cabbage because St. Patrick’s Day is right around the corner.
Wait… what’s that you say? None of these things are actually Irish?
You would be correct. They’re about as Irish as a McDonald’s Shamrock Shake.
The now iconic T-shirts are for sale only in touristy gift shops. The Irish would never pollute good beer with green dye, and while they do eat corned beef and cabbage sometimes, they’re probably not sitting down and eating it on March 17. So how did this meal become synonymous with St. Patrick’s Day — especially in the United States?
The Irish have a long history with cattle that shaped their views of eating beef in general. From early on, cows were not slaughtered for their meat but rather used in the fields as work animals. The Irish drank their milk and ate other dairy products, but never killed a cow unless it was too old to work or produce milk. In Gaelic Ireland, cows were viewed as a symbol of wealth and even sacred. These reasons meant that beef was’t a part of the normal diet for most Irishmen for hundreds of years.
During these times, meat had to be salted anyway to prevent it from spoiling. When the British conquered most of the country, their already established taste for beef drove the market. While the Irish produced large amounts of corned beef, it was nearly all for export to England. Instead, the Irish ate the much cheaper pork and salt pork.
Corned beef became associated with Irish food during the 19th century when the Irish immigrated to the U.S. While they were used to eating salt pork back home, it was prohibitively expensive in their new country. The next low-cost meat option was, of course, corned beef — the food their great-grandparents had become so famous for producing for export. What was once a luxury in their homeland became everyday fare.
So it was the Irish-Americans who drove the connection of corned beef to the country of Ireland, and that ultimately led to its association to the holiday of St. Patrick’s Day. We can thank the Irish-Americans who transformed St. Patrick’s Day from a somber religious holiday to a celebration of cultural heritage we can all enjoy.
So what is corned beef?
Corned beef is made from brisket, a fairly inexpensive cut of beef. The meat goes through a curing process that uses large grains of rock salt, called “corns,” and a brine. It then goes through a slow cooking process, which turns an otherwise tough cut of beef into something tender and delicious.
The British are responsible for inventing the term “corned beef.” In the 17th century, they likened the size of the salt crystals used for curing the beef to the size of corn kernels.