Why do we eat Corned Beef and Cabbage?

Posted on March 19, 2011

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Why is corned beef and cabbage a tradition on St. Patrick’s Day? I am approximately one-quarter Irish, but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you until doing some reading of history myself. 

I learned that corned beef is a salt-cured cut of beef, usually a brisket or round steak, prepared using “corns” or small salt crystals to aid in preservation. By the eighteenth century, corned beef was one of Ireland’s leading food exports… but being master butchers and preparers of corned beef did not mean the Irish liked to eat it themselves.

According to an article recently published by the Dublin Institue of Technology, the dish of corned beef and cabbage was really popularized by Irish American immigrants.  Beef, apparently, was a luxury in Ireland a few hundred years ago. In celebrations of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, the traditional meal was actually centered around ham, but when droves of Irish immigrants arrived in the United States, ham may not have been as readily available as corned beef. So, while eating corned beef and cabbage is a gung-ho tradition across this country, the people of Ireland today claim they feel little affinity with the dish. How could this come to be?

I think it has a lot to do with the Irish American immigrant’s experience in the United States, an experience that has very compelling psychological underpinnings in terms of assimilation and identity. When the Irish began to arrive in the United States, they were not initially accepted by ethnic groups already settled here. They were received only with ridicule and scorn and welcomed only by heavy negative stereotypes attached to their ethnic identity. This may sound similar to the  experience of many new immigrants arriving in the United States, a trend that points to the ethnic stratification upholding this country’s system of social dominance.

The theory of social dominance, outlined by psychologists Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto, describes the effects of social organization on the psychology of its individual members. It’s interesting to imagine these effects can even be reflected in food traditions. For example, the article I mentioned above suggests that the Irish did most business with Jewish immigrants, whose butchers were ready producers of corned beef, hence this substitution in their traditional meal. It likely can be assumed this cross-cultural relationship developed because the Jewish were similarly exluded from dominant society at the time. The article even further suggests that German immigrants were known for the production of ham, but it is likely the Irish did not find German butcheries as accessible as their Jewish counterparts.

Irish Americans were an ethnic group that quickly assimilated in the mainstream American culture. Several qualities can aid assimilation, one of which is likeness of appearance to the main crowd. Because the Irish shared such a likeness, it may be difficult to remember a time when they were ever ridiculed. At that time, however, the sense of social distance, and perhaps a desire to close that gap, may have engendered a need to promote pride in the Irish American identity, hence the start of New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the wearing of all things green, and the eating of corned beef and cabbage on March 17th!

I can’t say there is really a causal effect between Irish American social exclusion and this food tradition, but I’m glad I looked more into the history and have gained a somewhat deeper understanding of my own cultural heritage!

Irish Corned Beef and Cabbage with Red potatoes and Carrots

1 flat cut corned beef brisket (about 2 pounds), rinsed
2 medium onions, quartered
Salt, whole black peppercorns, or other spices, to taste
6 medium carrots, peeled
8 small red potatoes, halved
1 small head cabbage, quartered

Place corned beef fat side down in a large heavy-bottomed pot with lid and arrange onions around it. Sprinkle with salt and whole black peppercorns. Fill pot with cold water until beef is just covered. Place pot over medium heat, cover, and bring to simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low, and continue to simmer for 2 hours, or one hour per pound of beef.

At the last half hour of cooking, place cabbage on top of corned beef and cover. In a separate pot, add carrots and potatoes. Fill pot with cold water until just barely covering vegetables. Place over high heat, bring to a boil, and cook until softened, about 15-20 minutes. (You can cook the carrots and potatoes in the same pot with the beef, if it’s large enough, but I preferred to keep them separate in order to avoid having them absorb too much fat from the beef.)

Place carrots and potatoes in large serving dish, and arrange steamed cabbage on top. Remove beef from cooking liquid, and place on a clean work surface. Cooking liquid may be strained to make gravy. Cut corned beef across the grain into thin serving slices, and arrange sliced corned beef with vegetables in serving dish.

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