Corned Beef – Ersatz Irish?


Where’s the Beef? Read on

An article by Liam Stack in the New York Times, investigating whether corned beef is really Irish, suggested it is more Irish-American, in particular the association with St. Patrick’s Day. The article interviewed experts on Irish-American history and Ireland who seemed inclined that the old sod really preferred a cured meat from a different animal, bacon. One even suggested corned beef as known in Irish-American communities perhaps derived from Jewish pickled brisket in New York.

Another theorized that anti-Irish humour in the early 1900s was based on the perception of Irish-Americans as too fond of pork, and beef became favoured for a more all-American image.

Well, all this seems wrong to me. First, the Jewish people traditionally did not eat pickled brisket with cabbage and potatoes, not as far as I know. Second, corned beef in its different forms of wet-pickled, dry-cured, spiced, etc. is an old dish in England, as I discussed in an earlier blog entry. It seems unlikely an established dish of manor houses and prosperous farms would be unknown a hop and skip over the Irish Sea, particularly when Britain governed Ireland in toto.

A check in Google Books produced these references to ponder 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. A quote:

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, a cured pork product was also mentioned, but listed after the corned beef. The 1820s were early days for the Irish Catholic influx to America. It is unlikely the newly-established Irish in America brought a dish largely unknown in Ireland 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 stated 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 possibly had not 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 obtain it. 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 stated:

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

He adds the inns he frequented usually had a slow business and had to rely on salted provisions as a staple. Since he indicates commercial travellers used the inns, corned beef in Ireland could not have been a luxury reserved to the Anglo-Irish elite or other prosperous residents, as some have argued.

References #2 and #3 post-date the start of Irish emigration to America, but none refer to America. Even this brief canvass suggests to me, together with corned beef’s long association with England, that Ireland had the dish for a long time and sent the taste to America.

This doesn’t mean everyone in historical Ireland ate corned beef, or very often, but that is 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 peremptory.

Finally, even as corned beef seems less of an Irish favourite these days, the contemporary eating pattern, including for St. Patrick’s Day, is neither here nor there. Eating habits evolve everywhere, specially over the period in question. But if some Irish families have stopped eating corned beef on the idea it lacks Hibernian lineage, they might think twice about the matter.

[See Part II to this post].

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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