The Van Trump Report

The History of America’s Most Popular St. Patrick’s Day Meal

St. Patrick’s Day is tomorrow, March 17, which for many Americans means stuffing themselves with corned beef. Most probably assume this is a traditional Irish food but it was actually created right here in the US by Irish immigrants. While Ireland does have a long and somewhat complicated history with the dish, it was nothing like what we call corned beef today.

Ireland historically has not been a big beef-eating country. In ancient Ireland, the cow was considered a symbol of wealth in the Gaelic religion. People did keep cows but used them primarily for their milk and farm work. Typically only wealthy people consumed beef, and even then it was reserved for a special occasion or festival. Pork was actually the meat of the common people.  

As there was no refrigeration in those days, meat was “salted” in order to preserve it. The earliest salted meats were not actually made with salt but rather something called “sea ash,” a byproduct of burning seaweed. Most Irish used the technique on pork, creating a specific kind of “bacon” that is similar to what we know as Canadian-style bacon today.

It wasn’t until around the 16th century after England had captured most of Ireland that cows lost their sacred symbolism and beef became a major industry in the country. This was largely due to the beef-eating habits of the Brits. As England didn’t have the land to support its beef consumption, it imported vast amounts of cattle from its colonies, including Ireland, Scotland, and later the US.    

Tens of thousands of Irish cattle were being imported to England by 1665, at which point it became the target of politicians looking to explain a failing British economy. The export of cattle by then had become crucial to the Irish economy, which was still almost entirely agricultural, and its main market was England. Nonetheless, dubbing the import of Irish cattle a “common and public nuisance,” the British Parliament in 1666 began passing a series of laws that became known as the “Cattle Acts,” essentially banning cattle exports to England.  

The Irish economy was expected to collapse but the country had managed to work in a twist. They negotiated to allow Ireland to still trade with mainland European states. With Irish markets flooded with cheap cows and beef, farmers and merchants turned back to their tradition of salted meat and soon developed a booming trade throughout Europe, even beating out their British competitors.

England eventually relaxed some of its trade restrictions and Irish salted beef subsequently grew in popularity among the Brits. In some parts of England, people began to call it “corned beef”, which was used to describe the large kernels of rock salt used in the preserving process.

Ireland remained a leader in corned beef production due to its abundance of cows and a lower salt tax than England. The lower taxes allowed Irish companies to import better quality salt which is highly correlated to the quality of the finished product. The city of Cork, in southern Ireland, became the center of the corned beef trade through the 17th and the beginning of the 18th centuries, shipping out half of the beef the country produced. However, as demand grew, prices climbed, again making beef unaffordable to most Irish commoners, who continued to mostly eat pork as well as a new vegetable crop – potatoes.

In the 1840s, the Great Irish Potato Famine struck the country, resulting in an estimated 2 million Irish fleeing to America in search of a better life. Many settled in poor New York neighborhoods alongside other ethnic groups, like the Jews and Italians. While most were considered poor, they were making far more money than they did in Ireland, meaning many could afford beef for the first time.

The Jewish population in early America made a version of corned beef as well. However, they used brisket, a kosher cut of meat from the front of the cow. The tough cut of meat was also cheap, making it a popular choice for immigrant households. It was also the most readily available at local butcher shops, which were overwhelmingly Jewish in the immigrant communities of New York.

Some historians believe kosher butchers may have first introduced the Irish to the corned beef we know today, which was close to traditional “Irish bacon.” In fact, the classic St. Patrick’s Day feast of corned beef and cabbage is the Irish-American variant of the traditional Irish dish of bacon and cabbage.  (Sources: Smithsonian, Westchester Magazine, Delish)

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