When it comes to celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in America, there seem to be three necessities. The first, of course, is beer. Whether it’s authentic Guinness, select Irish microbrews, or American macro-swill with some unappetizing green dye, you have to have beer. Second is Irish soda bread, the dense yet fluffy, slightly tangy quick bread that rises without the aid of yeast. Third, the main course that revelers hope will soak up all that beer, is corned beef and cabbage. A hearty meal of spiced meat and slaw, no stateside St. Patrick’s Day seems complete without it. But if you’re not immersed in Irish lore and have developed a distinctly Mitteleuropan palate, you may have wondered: what’s so Irish about corned beef and cabbage, anyway? As it turns out, the history behind corned beef and cabbage as a St. Patrick’s Day dish doesn’t begin on the Emerald Isle at all.
For centuries, we humans have been salt-curing our meat to flavor and preserve it, but corned beef and cabbage as we know it begins to take its shape in 19th-century Eastern Europe—Romania, to be precise. The Turkish pastirma is a salted and spiced cut of meat, be it beef, lamb, goat, or horse, that spread throughout the Ottoman Empire and its neighbors. The dish made inroads in nearby Romania, where butchers of Romania’s Ashkenazi Jewish community adopted the methods of pastirma to beef brisket, where it improved a tough yet affordable cut of meat.
As the Jewish diaspora continued to spread and European Jews sought safety and opportunity in the New World, they brought their food with them. With Italian sausage products on the minds of Americans, the Romanian pastrama became the Italian soundalike “pastrami.” Meanwhile, in Great Britain, industrialized food production and a taste for Central European delicatessen fare intersected with the rising popularity of corned beef, a cut of beef that is treated with corns of koshering salt much as pastrami is. As this made its way to across the Atlantic, corned beef and pastrami became practically synonymous, and appeared side-by-side in the delis of New York, Montréal, and other cosmopolitan cities in North America.
The Sidewalks of New York
Then as now, New York is known for its high population density and vibrant immigrant communities. In the tenements of Brooklyn, the Jewish diaspora bumped up against the Irish diaspora, as the Irish themselves fled their European homeland under famine and persecution. The Irish had long had a taste for bacon as a part of the traditional full Irish breakfast, a belly-busting meal that keeps laborers fed through long days. With beef being far more plentiful in America than it was in Ireland, the salty, flavorful corned beef and pastrami of nearby Jewish eateries was a fine stand-in for pork bacon. Add the cabbage to fill out the meal, and in the great melting pot of New York, an Irish tradition was born.
It’s true continental provenance notwithstanding, you still can’t have a St. Patrick’s Day party without this dish. But when you celebrate this year, know that the history behind corned beef and cabbage means that you’re not really celebrating Ireland—you’re celebrating America.
High Fructose Corn Syrup