A look at the origins of an Irish-American classic.
For many Americans, the defining taste of Saint Patrick’s Day—beyond certain adults-only beverages—has always been Corned Beef and Cabbage, a combination that gets its moment in the spotlight once a year during the shamrock-filled festivities. But how did this tradition begin—and is corned beef really as Irish as we’ve come to believe?
In fact, corned beef—a salt-cured brisket product, named for the “corns” of salt it’s packed and preserved in—is a distinctly American tradition with a worldly origin story. Though it’s not known precisely where corned beef was invented, its ties to Ireland run deep; one of the earliest recorded references to the meat product was a Gaelic poem of the 12th century, and the country was the top producer of the salt-cured beef for many years.
Both British and North American armies and naval fleets consumed corned beef in droves from the 17th to 19th centuries, as the nonperishable product was a convenient source of protein, and a large portion of this corned beef was exported from the Emerald Isle. At the time, the beef packing industry was a major source of trade for Ireland’s coastal cities, including Belfast, Dublin, and Cork. However, this boom in beef exports meant that cow meat became an expensive indulgence for average Irish families, who took to consuming pork around their tables instead.
The practice of eating meat on St. Patrick’s Day began due to the ongoing Lent season, when consuming animals was customarily prohibited. However, Irish tradition was to dispense with Lenten rules on this day and consume meat, sweets, and other indulgences given up during this time period. A typical St. Patrick’s Day menu in Ireland will consist of stew made with cabbage and Irish bacon (a lean cut of pork reminiscent of Canadian bacon), rather than the salt-cured product consumed in America. In fact, it’s rare to find corned beef and cabbage on any menu on Ireland, with the exception of some heavily touristic spots.
Beyond the homeland’s beef trade history, the reason corned beef became a symbol of Irish-American culture was due to the outpouring of Irish emigrants who flocked to America during the Irish Potato Famine of the 19th century.
These families found corned beef to be an affordable and accessible form of protein, as it could be prepared in larger quantities and didn’t put too much of a dent in their limited budgets. Although corned beef had been primarily produced in Ireland for years, many of these Irish immigrants got their first taste of the food from the Jewish delis of NYC. Cabbage and potatoes were prepared alongside the meat as they were cheap, filling, and easy one-pot additions.
When immigrants also brought the tradition of St. Patrick’s Day to America, corned beef and cabbage became the de facto “traditional” Irish dish served at these celebrations. Though you’re highly unlikely to find the residents of Cork or Dublin digging into corned beef and cabbage on St. Paddy’s, there is perhaps no food that represents the Irish-American experience quite like this humble and hearty dish.