Some say everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, but did you know the tradition of eating corned beef and cabbage is a strictly American Irish custom and not done on the Emerald Isle? In fact, it wasn’t even the Irish who coined the term “Corned Beef;” it actually came from the British.
In Ireland, cattle were too important to be raised for food. The working class, who make up most of the island, would use their cows for working the fields and producing milk and making other dairy products. Beef was the food of the kings and the aristocracy. The only time the common laborer Irish would be eating beef is if one of their cattle became too old or had an injury which would prevent them from working. Pork and lamb are what most Irish ate in its stead.
It was in the 12th century, when the British conquered Ireland and put them under English rule when cows began to be raised for food rather than work. Whole cattle were exported to England for the ruling class to have their feasts and impress the visiting leaders. When the Cattle Acts of 1663 and 1667 were passed, the shipment of live cattle was prohibited to the mainland of England.
Without their avenue to raise their own beef cattle, the English sought out how to still receive meat while not breaking the law. This is when a process of dry curing the processed beef with salt was used predominantly to ensure the product stayed safe for consumption as it went from one island to the next. The salt that was used was as large as kernels of corn and it was the British who called the product Irish “Corned Beef.”
When the Irish immigrated to the United States, like a lot of groups, they were discriminated against and formed their own communities, usually right next to the other cultures which were looked down upon. While still working class, these American Irish were making more money than they were back home. This afforded them the ability to eat beef more frequently, if they were cheap cuts.
Settling next to the Irish were Jewish communities who had been making a preserved beef brisket for years. While not just cured with salt but with other spices as well, the Irish recognized this as something like their ancestors would make for the British export. With the low cost and high flavor of this “Corned Beef Brisket,” The Irish would serve this on days of celebration, such as St. Patrick’s Day, which they transformed from strictly a Catholic holiday to a celebration of Irish culture.
Check out our recipe for Corned Beef here.