Even if you aren’t Irish, you’ve probably enjoyed, or at least heard of, corned beef and cabbage — a dish traditionally eaten on St. Patrick’s Day. I’m Irish and every March 17th, my mom cooks corned beef and cabbage, with a side of potatoes, and bakes Irish soda bread. I felt it was safe to assume that since St. Patrick’s Day is the only day of the year we eat this meal that it was a traditionally Irish dish. To my surprise, corned beef and cabbage did not originate from Ireland – and the meal isn’t actually Irish at all. Here’s exactly what corned beef and cabbage is and why we eat it on St. Patrick’s Day.
Corned beef is a cut of meat similar to brisket that has been salt-cured. The term “corned” comes from the usage of large grained rock salt, called “corns,” used in the salting process. Today, salt brines are more popular.
Corned beef and cabbage’s popularity took shape during Irish immigration to the United States. Pork was the preferred meat in Ireland since it was cheap — if you’ve ever been to an Irish diner you’ve most likely seen Irish bacon on the menu. In Ireland, the high price of cattle meant the animals weren’t slaughtered for food unless they were old or injured; they were too important for milk and dairy production and farming. In contrast, beef was inexpensive in the United States.
When the Irish immigrated to the U.S., they often faced discrimination and lived in slums alongside Jewish and Italian groups. It was at Jewish delis and lunch carts that the Irish experienced corned beef and noticed its similarity to Irish bacon. Cooking the corned beef with cabbage was another choice based on cost efficiency. Even better, the entire meal could be cooked in one pot, making it cheap, easy to prepare, and, let’s not forget, — tasty.