St. Patty’s Day is coming up! This is America’s day to celebrate Irish-American traditions, or, more accurately, to decorate pubs with pictures of ginger-bearded elves in top hats and to wear green t-shirts begging people to kiss us (hey, no judgement, guys).
And while I’m a strong proponent of both top hats and kissing, let’s take a moment to actually learn something about Irish-American traditions, shall we? For starters, do you know why we associate the Irish with corned beef? (hint: it’s not what you think).
You’ve been duped. Like Nancy Drew or Agatha Christie, we are about to unlock the mystery – sweet, delicious, melt-in-your-mouth mystery – of Corned Beef.
An English-Irish Tradition?
You’ve probably been told that we eat corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day because it’s an Irish dish. The problem is, that’s just not true.
Although corned beef was technically manufactured on Irish soil, it was an entirely English project (gasp!). English colonists owned the cows that provided the beef, English traders imported salt rocks (“corns”) from southwestern France and the Iberian peninsula, and English factories set up in Ireland used to the salt to corn the English-owned beef. Then the final product was exported to England, where it was enjoyed by the – you guessed it – English.
Although corned beef was available for sale in Ireland, it was too expensive for most of the native Irish, who lived in poverty during English colonial occupation. Instead, it adorned the tables of Anglo-Irish colonists, who profited off of Ireland’s land at the expense of its people. And the land that the English took up for its cattle to make the corned beef left the Irish with few options for growing their own food, exacerbating the impact of the Potato Famine. So, basically, corned beef is the food of major jerks. Hold up, though – there’s a bright spot here.
The Silver Lining
Okay, so at this point you’re staring at your delicious Reuben as if it just kicked a puppy, or told you it never really thought Ross and Rachel had much chemistry (as if). Don’t be too hard on your sandwich, though. The story gets better.
So, Gangs of New York-style, when the Irish immigrated to America in droves, fleeing starvation and persecution, they were shocked to find that corned beef, which was considered an unattainable luxury good in Ireland, was cheap and readily available in the States.
Corned beef quickly became the preferred Irish-American alternative to bacon and provided struggling immigrant families with an easy boost of perceived indulgence that kept them going.
A Tradition of Resilience
Today, Irish-Americans eat corned beef in memory of the remarkable resilience and saving sense of humor that has characterized the development of that community.
So nosh away on that Reuben. You’re honoring the courage, endurance, and vivacity that newcomers have been bringing to the US from it’s very beginning. And that’s pretty tasty.
Celebrate With Home Chef
Show Irish-Americans some love and share in the simple pleasure of corned beef. Cook it next week (just in time for St. Patrick’s Day!), when you order our St. Patrick’s Beefy Reuben Sandwich. We pair this spectacular hand-hold with potato chips (another nod to Irish cuisine) and all the fixins.