A Brief History of "Traditional" Corned Beef, Cabbage and Potatoes

A Tale Of Two Beefs
Corned Beef and Cabbage with Potatoes. In some fashion it is estimated that 80% of restaurants will be serving some combination or take on this traditional dish today. There is only one problem – this is not a true Irish dish, and in Ireland they quite honestly don’t care for corned beef as we know it.

Historically, the Irish people never ate a lot of beef. Pork was and remains the largest bred animal for meat on the island nation. Cows traditionally were used mainly for dairy products, milk and for their strength to work the country side for farming. It wasn’t until the Brits conquered Ireland that cows became seen as food. The British could not support their own citizens demands for beef, so cows were imported from Ireland as fast as they could be bred and reach slaughter weight. Then, around the mid to late 1660s came along the “Cattle Acts” that banned the export of live cattle from Ireland. But, with all the massive herds now being raised, the supply was still there. Add that the salt taxes in Ireland were significantly lower and you had a match made in heaven.

The flavor of Corned Beef (a British term because the salt crystals used were the size of corn kernels) was much more salty than what we know today in the States. However, for its nutritional value and its shelf life, the beef was popular all over the Western world. It was so popular and such a market at the time when France and Britain were at war, a war mostly fought at sea, the British allowed an exception for the French navy to still stop in Ireland to purchase corned beef.

Fast forward a couple hundred years and the staple diet in Ireland was still pork and the potato, introduced by the Brits 2 centuries before. When the “Potato Famine” hit the Irish population was devastated. Those that remained were forced to work the fields until their death in an attempt to keep everyone fed. Estimates say that close to a million Irish died in the famine and as many as a million more immigrated to the USA. Here, the Irish faced legal discrimination practices and found it difficult to assimilate. In addition, they were spread the world over due to oppression. This and many cultural similarities led to the Jewish and Irish immigrant communities becoming quite close.

Now that the Irish settlers were making homes and finding work, they were able to begin to afford a better quality of life then they had in Ireland. With this new financial freedom came an expansion in the celebration of their heritage. And when the (then) religious holiday of St. Patrick’s Day came around, the Irish American immigrants begin to buy a familiar product made by their ancestors – corned beef. Only they were buying it from their Jewish neighbors who made it from a Kosher Brisket and needed to cure the beef longer to break down the tough cut of meat. Add that to the traditional potatoes and cheapest vegetable available – cabbage – and you now have the “Traditional” St. Patrick’s meal of Corned Beef, Boiled Potatoes and Cabbage. A true homage to the heritage of the Irish and the American Dream of hard work, success and working within ones community for everyone’s benefit.
Chef Adam Scott for Dalstrong