When we think of St. Patrick’s Day, we think of green beer, leprechauns, shamrocks, corned beef and cabbage. However, in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day, you would probably only find shamrocks, Guinness and Jameson. The Irish would never pollute their beer with green dye. Guinness has incredibly high standards and so do the Irish when it comes their beloved beer. Corned beef was something that for many centuries only the wealthy and English would traditionally eat. So how did corned beef and cabbage become synonymous with St. Paddy’s Day in the USA?
From ancient times, cows in Ireland were used for plowing the fields, for their milk and for other dairy products. In Gaelic Ireland, cows were a symbol of wealth and a sacred animal. Because of their sacred association, they were only killed for their meat if the cows became too old to work or produce milk. Beef was very rarely eaten and then only the very wealthy ate it on celebrations or festivals. To preserve meat, it had to salted and in ancient Ireland the salt came from burning seaweed.
In ancient times pigs were the only animal bred solely to be eaten. Pork is still today the most eaten meat in Ireland. The British were the ones who changed the sacred cow into a much demanded food. The British had been a beef eating culture since the invasion of the Roman armies. England could not produce enough beef for its population so they needed cows to be raised in Ireland, Scotland and eventually North America. In the 1660’s, laws were put into effect that would not allow live cattle to be exported to England. These laws even regulated the size of the salt crystals to be used in curing the beef. The salt had to be size of corn kernels. Hence, the term “corned beef”. Ireland could import the best salt at an extremely low cost because Ireland’s salt tax was much lower that England’s. Ireland’s corned beef was the best available and was exported to most of Europe and North America. This corned beef was very different than what we eat today and much saltier.
Even though the Irish produced the world’s best corned beef, the people did not eat it because they could not afford it. The Irish mostly ate potatoes, cabbage and root vegetables and if they could afford meat, it was salted pork or bacon.
By the late 1700’s North America was producing their own beef and did not need the Irish corned beef. Then several potato blights occurred causing the great famines with millions dying and many fleeing to the USA. There they were met with great prejudices but they were making more money than in Ireland. They were then able to afford corned beef but it was primarily purchased from nearby kosher butchers so it was quite different than what their ancestors had produced. So what we eat today as Irish corned beef is actually Jewish corned beef made from kosher brisket. Brisket is a tougher cut of meat but when it is salted it becomes extremely tender and flavorful.
The Irish Americans transformed St Patrick’s Day from a religious feast day to a celebration of their heritage and homeland. In honor of their culture, the immigrants added their beloved potato and cabbage to the corned beef. It didn’t take long for corned beef and cabbage to become associated with St. Patrick’s Day. Even on Lincoln’s first Inaugural Luncheon on March 4, 1861 corned beef, cabbage and potatoes were served. In Ireland the traditional St. Patrick’s Day meal still is served with lamb, pork or bacon. St. Patrick’s Day parades began in the USA and until 1970, pubs in Ireland were closed by law on St. Patrick’s Day. It was originally a day about religion and family, not beer and celebrations. But now, as the saying goes, everyone is Irish on St Patrick’s Day and some of these “new” traditions have been embraced in Ireland. I wonder what my Irish ancestors would think.
Speaking of beer, Guinness sells about 10 million pints a day in 100 countries. However on St. Patrick’s Day, they sell 13 million!! Arthur Guinness started his beer company in Dublin in 1759 and now it has become the unofficial beer of the Irish and the drink most served on March 17 followed by Jameson. I think that I will now head downtown St Petersburg, Florida in search of a Guinness, corned beef, cabbage and some great friends. Slainte (pronounced: slawncha) cheers to you and good health!!