Corned Beef – Ersatz Irish?


Where’s the Beef? Read on

The New York Times has an article by Liam Stack investigating whether corned beef is really Irish and suggesting it is more Irish-American, in particular as connected to St. Patrick’s Day. The article interviewed experts on Irish-American history and Ireland who inclined that the old sod really preferred … bacon. One person interviewed suggested corned beef in Irish-American communities could have derived from Jewish pickled brisket in New York.

Another theorizes that anti-Irish humour in the early 1900s was based on the Irish being seen as too fond of pork, hence Irish-Americans took up beef for a more all-American image.

Well, all this seems wrong to me. First, the Jews never ate pickled brisket with cabbage and potatoes, or not as far as I know. Second, corned beef in different forms (wet-pickled, dry-cured, spiced, etc.) is an old dish in England, as I discussed in an earlier blog entry. It seems unlikely a hallowed dish of English manor houses and prosperous farms would be unknown a hop and skip over the Irish Sea, particularly when Britain governed all of Ireland.

A quick check in Google Books produced these references viz. Ireland and corned beef:

  1. Fraser’s Magazine (1863), “A Fortnight in Ireland in the Lent of 1863“. Fraser’s was a reputed magazine of the Victorian era authored by a collective, the articles were not individually credited:

Both corned beef and cabbage are undoubtedly good things in their way … and I am happy to know that corned beef and cabbage are still of the first institutes of Irish cookery. You find the Irish cold corned beef in 1863, as in 1827 and 1830, on the side table of a morning, with cold chickens and tongue, grouse-pie, and those admirably cured Bath chaps which in Ireland are called pig’s faces. You also find corned beef piping hot at dinner…

Bath chap is a cured pig’s cheek, then a well-known product in different parts of Britain. Hence, albeit a pork product was also mentioned, it was listed after corned beef. The 1820s were early days for the Irish Catholic influx to America. It is unlikely newly-established Irish-Americans brought a dish largely unknown in Ireland back to the homeland on visits there and it promptly became popular.

Unquestionably, the bulk of the Irish suffered severe famine which led to the exodus mentioned. Nonetheless, the populace who still ate well knew corned beef throughout the century, per Fraser’s Magazine. This being so, there had to be a history of corned beef in Ireland, with cabbage to boot, well before 1800. Moreover this is supported is by these further references:

2. In  Ainsworth’s Magazine (1854), Matthew Lynch states in “Dublin Street-Cries“:

A corned rump of beef and cabbage is a favourite dish with all persons in Ireland – either peers or peasants. Corned beef is styled beef by the Irish people; and beef and  cabbage are looked upon as forming a splendid dish by our people.

Lynch adds that the poorest people ate bacon when they could have it – no beef. The bulk of the people who left Ireland for America possibly hadn’t regularly eaten corned beef at home, although this is far from clear, but in any case once they could afford a prized dish of the old country, they made sure to have some. This is quite different from learning the habit from other ethnicities including the Jews.

3. In a “A Walking Tour Round Ireland 1865…” W.W. Barry states:

I may observe that corned beef, mutton, and fish are rather common at the inns in Ireland, as having frequently few guests the …

Barry states the inns he frequented generally had a slow business and had to rely on salted provisions as a staple. Since he indicates commercial travellers used them, that is, salesmen on the road, it cannot be that corned beef in Ireland was a choice only of an Anglo-Irish elite or other prosperous residents as some have argued.

References #2 and #3 above post-date the start of Irish emigration to America, but none of the three sources refers to America in relation to corned beef. These sources suggest to me, together with corned beef long being known in nearby England, that Ireland had it for a long time and brought the taste to America.

This doesn’t mean everyone in Ireland ate corned beef, or even very often, but that’s different from saying it is not an Irish dish. Many Canadians rarely or never eat Canadian back bacon, but to state it is not a Canadian dish would be provocative. Dukes up.

Finally, the general eating pattern in Ireland today including for St. Patrick’s Day is neither here nor there. Eating habits change everywhere over time. But I wonder if some Irish families have stopped eating corned beef on the idea it has no Hibernian lineage, perhaps under influence from revisionist food writers.

Note re image: The image above is believed in the public domain and available for educational and historical use. It was sourced here. All feedback welcomed.




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