My Mom’s side of the family is of predominantly Irish ancestry. It’s the biggest chunk of any single culture in our anglo-mix, so it’s the one we identify with most. Every St. Patrick’s Day Mom gets the whole family together for what she (and many other Americans) considers a traditional Irish feast. This meal consists of slow roasted corned beef, potatoes, and cabbage, served with sheepherder’s bread or Irish soda bread and butter, and of course, many tall glasses of Guinness beer.
Curious to learn whether or not corned beef is actually an example of Irish cuisine, I did a little fact checking. As it turns out, corned beef is associated with Ireland because if was one of their chief exports to Greater Britton in the 17 and 18 century. In fact, the Irish resent the beef market as a factor in The Irish Famine of 1740 (1). At the time, most natives of Ireland consumed little to no beef, getting most of their protein from dairy or salt pork. Ireland is great grazing land for cattle, so much of this land was bought and farmed by Englishmen who packaged-up and exported out all the beef. This took up most of the agricultural real estate yet produced no food for the people of Ireland. Corned beef was cheap with a long shelf life and often stocked on British Naval ships and fed to slaves during transport by sea. When the slave trade fell off in the 17 century, so did the demand for corned beef.
The Irish do not identify corned beef as a national dish. Corned beef and cabbage is a peasant’s version of the more desirable Boiled Dinner; bacon, cabbage, potatoes, onions and carrots. Corned beef may have actually gained popularity in the US following the wave of Irish immigration in the late eighteen hundreds. Today many Americans and Canadians consume corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day, out of cultural miss-interpretation. It is also served in Ireland to Americans tourists out of popular demand (2).
The truth is a bit disappointing. My sister and I make this meal for our kids, our mother made it for us, our grandmother made it for her kids, even great-grandmother Winnifred made it! That's at least 5 generations of women serving an annual Irish feast to their family that is sadly, not-so-Irish after all. Never the less, Mom’s St. Patty’s day parties are fun and the once-a-year feast of corned beef and cabbage is too delicious to pass-up. It may not be Ireland’s tradition, but it has been and will remain our American tradition. Cheers!
1. Corned Beef. Wikipedia; Corned Beef. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corned_beef. Updated February 24 2014. Accessed February 28 2014.
2. Butler, Stephanie. “Corned Beef and Cabbage; As Irish As Spaghetti and Meatballs”. History.com. http://www.history.com/news/hungry-history/corned-beef-and-cabbage-as-irish-as-spaghetti-and-meatballs. Updated March 14 2013. Accessed February 28 2014.