By Jacqueline G. Goodwin, Ed.D.
While many North Americans associate corned beef and cabbage with Ireland, this popular St. Patrick’s Day meal has roots in America, and is not traditional Irish food.
Corned beef, a salt-cured brisket, was traditionally packed and stored in barrels with coarse grains, or “corns” of salt. One of the earliest references to corned beef appears in the 12th century Gaelic poem “Aislinge Meic Conglinne,” where it references a dainty, gluttonous indulgence. By the 17th century, salting beef had become a major industry for Irish port cities of Cork and Dublin, where Irish beef was cured and exported to France, England and later to America.
With the majority of Irish beef being exported, beef was an expensive source of protein and unavailable to the majority of Irish citizens. Salt pork and bacon, therefore, became the commonly consumed meat protein of Irish tables. Fat from bacon supplemented the lack of fat in the farmhouse diet and Sir Charles Cameron was quoted as saying that he does “not know of any country in the world where so much bacon and cabbage is eaten.” Even today corned beef and cabbage appears infrequently in Irish pubs and restaurants, except for those in heavily tourist areas, and is much more likely to be replaced its traditional counterpart – an Irish stew with cabbage, leeks, and a bacon joint.
After the Irish potato famine of the mid-19th century brought hundreds of Irish immigrants to the shores of America, the newly immigrated Irish Americans found corned beef to be both more accessible and more affordable than it was in Ireland. Both corned beef and cabbage were ingredients of the lower working class, and their popularity among the Irish population likely had little to do with similarities to the food of Ireland and more to do with the relatively inexpensive nature of salt cured beef and green cabbage. It didn’t take long for corned beef and cabbage to become associated with St. Patrick’s Day. Maybe it was on Lincoln’s mind when he chose the menu for his first Inaugural Luncheon on March 4, 1861, which was corned beef, cabbage and potatoes.
The popularity of corned beef and cabbage never crossed the Atlantic to the homeland. Instead of corned beef and cabbage, the traditional St. Patrick’s Day meal eaten in Ireland is lamb or bacon. In fact, many of what we consider St. Patrick’s Day celebrations didn’t make it there until recently. St. Patrick’s Day parades and festivals began in the United States. And, until 1970, pubs were closed by law in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day. It was originally a day about religion and family. Today in Ireland, thanks to Irish tourism and Guinness, you will find many of the Irish American traditions including corned beef and cabbage. 7
Corned Beef and Cabbage
- 1 corned beef brisket (about 4 pounds)
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 16 cups cold water
- 2 teaspoons black peppercorns
- 4 whole allspice berries
- 2 whole cloves
- 2 bay leaves
- 3-1/2 pounds small potatoes (10-15), peeled
- 8 medium carrots, halved crosswise
- 1 medium head cabbage, cut into wedges
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 to 1-1/2 cups reserved cooking juices from corned beef
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
- 1/4 cup horseradish
Mustard Sauce (optional)
- 1 cup sour cream
- 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- 1/4 teaspoon sugar
Preheat the oven to 300°F. Place the corned beef in a colander in the sink and rinse well under cold running water.
Place the corned beef in a large Dutch oven with a tight-fitting lid; add the water, bay leaves, peppercorns, allspice, and cloves. Bring to a boil, uncovered. Cover and transfer pan to the oven, and braise until very tender, about 3 hours and 45 minutes.
Transfer the corned beef to a cutting board and cover tightly with foil to keep warm. Add the cabbage and potatoes to the cooking liquid and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer the cabbage to a large platter. Slice the corned beef across the grain of the meat into thin slices. Lay the slices over the cabbage and surround it with the potatoes. Ladle some of the hot cooking liquid over the corned beef and season with pepper. Serve with vegetables, Horseradish Sauce and, if desired, Mustard Sauce.
In a small saucepan, melt butter over medium heat; stir in flour until smooth. Gradually whisk in 1 cup reserved juices. Stir in sugar, vinegar and horseradish; bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Cook and stir until thickened. If desired, thin with additional juices. Season to taste with additional sugar, vinegar or horseradish.
Mix all ingredients.