Corned Beef & Other Irish Myths

March 14, 2009 at 12:37 pm 1 comment

The Irish have been celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day with a giant pot of corned beef and cabbage for centuries. Or have they? If you are Irish-American you may want to sit down before reading on.

The dance style made famous by Michael Flatley is not called Riverdancing. Danny Boy is not an Irish song.  They do not drink green beer in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day.  Corned beef is not a traditional Irish recipe, it’s Jewish.

The Irish recipe that evolved into corned beef and cabbage here in the States was boiled bacon and cabbage. However, when early 20th century Irish immigrants started Jonesing for a taste of the old country they were shocked to find no collar bacon in their new homeland. Collar bacon differs from what we are used to because it contains less salt and has more of the natural flavor of bacon employing the Wiltshire Cure method.

The Irish do not understand the concept of quitting and soon they stumbled on a phenomenon in the neighborhoods of New York called delicatessens.  Within these shops run mostly my Jewish artisans there existed a magical cut of bovine called corned beef, a brine-cured then boiled slab of brisket.

The pungent brine and fat cap resembled the collar bacon enough that New World Irishmen had found a new favorite meal.  It’s relative inexpensiveness was also advantageous for an immigrant community that was treated as a social pariah and therefore blocked from upward mobility and higher paying jobs for over half a century.

To make your corned beef from scratch is time consuming as it must be in the brine for several days.  However, most super markets have corned beef briskets in their meat departments that are perfectly cured and ready for boiling.

The package will tell you how long to boil them, usually 30 minutes per pound.  Simply add chopped cabbage and diced potatoes and carrots during the last half hour of cooking and your corned beef and cabbage are ready.  Serve with Irish soda bread for soaking up the pot liquer.  I like to rub my brisket with coarse mustard and sear it on all sides before boiling, but that’s just me.

Left over corned beef is perfect for Reubens put please do not put Thousand Island dressing on them – that’s just gross.  Russian Dressing is traditional (if you can find it) or mustard are perfect condiments along with sauerkraut and Swiss cheese.  You can use either Jewish rye or pumpernickle but only rye breads will do.  You can thank fern bars like Bennigan’s for that whole Thousand Island fiasco.

If you want to be true to your Irish roots collar bacon is now available in the US.  However, if you are going to be true to those roots then you will not drink green beer at a pub but rather go to mass as there is little partying on the Emerald Isle on March 17th.  It is a religious holiday.

And now I will leave you with this traditional Irish blessing:

May those who love us, love us.
And those who don’t love us,
May God turn their hearts;
And if He doesn’t turn their hearts,
May He turn their ankles,
So we will know them by their limping.


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1 Comment

  • 1. Judith  |  March 14, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    Excellent post! I found you on Twitter and will now stop by before I make any holiday food errors.

    What a fantastic tidbit of foodie history and lore. Thanks!


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Stuart Reb Donald

Stuart is a celebrity chef and award winning food writer. Donald performs live cooking demonstrations and penned the cookbook Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor."



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