Corned Beef – Ersatz Irish?


“Where’s The Beef?” Not!*

The New York Times had an article by Liam Stack suggesting that corned beef, an Irish-American dish associated with St. Patrick’s Day, had little or nothing to do with Ireland. The article interviewed specialists on Irish-American history and Ireland, and concluded the old sod really preferred … bacon. One of the persons interviewed suggested corned beef in Irish America may derive from Jewish pickled brisket in New York. Another theorizes that anti-Irish humour in the early 1900s was based on porcine jibes, and Irish-Americans took up beef to project a more all-American image.

Well, all this seemed wrong to me. First, the Jews never ate pickled brisket with cabbage, or not as far as I know (not that the combination isn’t very good). Second, pickled beef is an old dish in England, as I discussed in an earlier blog entry. It seems unlikely that a specialty of English manor houses and prosperous farms would be unknown a hop and a skip over the Irish Sea, particularly at a time Britain governed all of Ireland.

A quick check at Google Books produced these references.

  1. Fraser’s Magazine (1863), “A Fortnight in Ireland in the Lent of 1863“. (Fraser’s was a reputed magazine of the Victorian era. It was authored by a collective and 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…”.

Batch chap is cured pig’s cheek, then a well-known product in parts of Britain. Thus, albeit a pork product was also mentioned, it was listed after corned beef. The 1820s were still early days for the Irish influx to America in the 19th century. It is implausible that newly-established Irish-Americans brought an unknown dish back to the homeland which promptly became famous.

Unquestionably, the bulk of the Irish people suffered severe famine which led to the exodus mentioned, but 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 appreciation of corned beef in Ireland (with cabbage to boot) well before 1800. This moreover is borne out by these further references.

2.  Ainsworth’s Magazine (1854), “Dublin Street-Cries” by Matthew Lynch:

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. It is possible that the bulk of the people who left Ireland for America hadn’t regularly eaten corned beef at home, although this is far from clear to me, but in any case once they could afford one of the prized dishes of the old country, they made sure to get some. This is quite different IMO from learning the habit from other ethnic presences such as the Jews.

3. “A Walking Tour Round Ireland 1865…” by W.W. Barry:

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

Barry explains that the inns he frequented generally had a slow business and therefore had to rely on salted provisions as a staple. Since he states commercial travellers used them (salesmen on the road), one can’t attach exclusively a high-rank status to corned beef in Ireland.

The last two references post-date somewhat the start of Irish emigration to America, but I don’t think it can be credibly argued that the appreciation of corned beef in Ireland was a rebound effect of that emigration. None of the three sources above refer to America in relation to the food observations. And again, corned beef was well known in not-far-away England. Clearly, Ireland had had it for a long time and I think it is likely they brought the taste to America.

This doesn’t mean everyone in Ireland ate corned beef, or very often, but that’s different from saying it is not an Irish dish. And the practice in Ireland today is neither here nor there as eating habits change everywhere over the period in question.

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


*Originally posted March 19, 2016. Lightly edited March 10, 2017.



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