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Corned Beef & Cabbage - The Feeding of A Myth
by Bridget Haggerty
What's the national dish of Ireland? Corned Beef and Cabbage, you say? Since March has undoubtedly become "Irish Awareness Month", we thought it would be fun to explore the truth behind yet another Irish myth.
Our research took us to an informative page on European Cuisine. According to the article written by an Irishman, Corned Beef first turns up in the Vision of MacConglinne, a 12th-century poem which describes Irish food as it was eaten at the time.
The poet tell us that Corned Beef is a delicacy given to a king, in an attempt to conjure "the demon of gluttony" out of his belly. This delicacy status makes little sense until one understands that beef was not a major part of the Irish diet until the last century or so.
True, cattle were kept from very early times, but it was for their milk - not their meat. Said one bemused sixteenth-century traveller and historian,"They make seventy-several kinds of food out of milk, both sweet and sour, and they love them the best when theyre sourest."
So, what meat did the Irish eat? History tells us that pork was always the favorite. In ancient times, cattle were prized as a common medium for barter. The size of ones herd was an indication of status, wealth and power -- hence all the stories of tribal chieftains and petty kings endlessly rustling one anothers cattle.
Long after the cattle raids were a distant memory, the majority of Irish people still didnt eat very much beef because it was much too expensive and those who could afford it, consumed it fresh.
Corned Beef again surfaces in writings from the late 1600's as a specialty, a costly delicacy - expensive because of the salt - and made to be eaten at Easter, and sometimes at Hallowe'en. Surprising to this writer, was learning what the term "corn" really means. The name comes from Anglo-Saxon times when meat was dry-cured in coarse "corns" of salt. Pellets of salt, some the size of kernels of corn, were rubbed into the beef to keep it from spoiling and to preserve it. Today, brining -- the use of salt water -- has replaced the dry salt cure, but the name "corned beef" is still used, rather than "brined" or "pickled" beef.
But back to the myth: It was in the late 19th century that it began to take root. When the Irish emigrated to America and Canada, where both salt and meat were cheaper, they treated beef the same way they would have treated a "bacon joint" at home in Ireland: they soaked it to draw off the excess salt, then braised or boiled it with cabbage, and served it in its own juices with only minimal spicing - may be a bay leaf or so, and some pepper.
This dish, which still turns up on some Irish tables at Easter, has become familiar to people of Irish descent as the traditional favorite to serve on Saint Patricks Day. Certainly, there will be many restaurants in Ireland that will be serving Corned Beef and Cabbage on March 17th , but most of them will be doing so just to please the tourists.
The truth is, that for many Irish people, Corned Beef is too "poor" or plain to eat on a holiday: they'd sooner make something more festive. So, what then, is the Irish national dish - if indeed, there is one?
When I was growing up, my dad's favorite on St. Patrick's Day was boiled bacon and cabbage and it would appear that is still true in Ireland today. The "bacon joint"- various cuts of salted or smoked and salted pork - is sometimes cooked alone, or it might be braised with a small chicken keeping it company in the pot; it might also be served with vegetables, or with potatoes boiled in their jackets. For holiday eating, the winner would probably be spiced beef, served cold and sliced thin, with soda bread and a pint of Guinness on the side. At our house, we always had Roast Goose at Christmas and Roast Lamb on Easter. In fact, the first time I ever ate Corned Beef & Cabbage was after I came to the U.S. So what will people in Ireland be eating on St. Patrick's Day? The question was put to listeners of South East Radio which reaches south Wicklow and parts of Wexford and Kilkenny. Said one respondent: "Eat? I eat pints."Another referred to the pint of Guinness as a "shamrock sandwich"and one mentioned a dish her family sometimes made which used cabbage, turnip and potatoes to honor the colors of the Irish flag. Of the twenty-five people who were polled, none of them mentioned any specific food as being of any interest.
Long after this article was written, a subscriber to our newsletter brought the following poem to our attention. It's just too good not to include as an addendum.
GOOD GRIEF - NOT BEEF!
I just want to put something straight
About what should be on your plate,
If it's corned beef you're makin'
You're sadly mistaken,
That isn't what Irishmen ate.
If you ever go over the pond
You'll find it's of bacon they're fond,
All crispy and fried,
With some cabbage beside,
And a big scoop of praties beyond.
Your average Pat was a peasant
Who could not afford beef or pheasant.
On the end of his fork
Was a bit of salt pork,
As a change from potatoes 'twas pleasant.
This custom the Yanks have invented,
Is an error they've never repented,
But bacon's the stuff
That all Irishmen scoff,
With fried cabbage it is supplemented.
So please get it right this St. Paddy's.
Don't feed this old beef to your daddies.
It may be much flasher,
But a simple old rasher,
Is what you should eat with your tatties.
©Frances Shilliday 2004
With many thanks to Frances whose internet page can be found here: Not Corned Beef.
So there you have it - and we hope that you're not too disappointed to learn that Corned Beef & Cabbage is about as truly Irish as Spaghetti & Meatballs. That said, when it's cooked properly, it is one of the most satisfying and tastiest of dishes. President Grover Cleveland once noticed the smell of Corned beef and Cabbage coming from the servants quarters at the White House. He asked to trade his dinner for that of the servants. He commented that this was "the best dinner I had had for months..."
Recipes: Please click here for Corned Beef & Cabbage
Please click here for Traditional Boiled Bacon and Cabbage ED. NOTE: There is a difference.
The New Irish Table
Margaret Johnsons love of Ireland permeates page after glorious page of mouthwatering Irish dishes, from Smoked Salmon Chowder to Raspberry Buttermilk Tarts. Lavish color photographs of the food, the landscapes, and the people are woven through the text, making The New Irish Table the next best thing to sitting down to dinner in Ireland itself.
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March 4, 2011