The Irish Pedigree of Corned Beef

Irish Specialists Examine the Question

With the arrival imminent of the day of St. Patrick (SPD), I’ve been re-tweeting my March 19, 2016 blogpost. It argues corned beef has ample Irish roots, certainly throughout the 1800s, and is not a faux-national dish via American cultural influences and foodways.

This is something worth putting forth in a time when countless media stories on both sides of the Atlantic acknowledge or recommend corned beef and cabbage as a dish for SPD yet often with a hint of exasperation, as if the dish really isn’t Irish.

In this regard a 2011 academic study is relevant entitled Irish Corned Beef: a Culinary History. It was published by the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) and co-authored by Dr. Mairtin Mac Con Iomaire of the DIT and Padraic Og Gallagher. You can read it here.

I was pleased to discover that the authors do not accept the “simplistic” explanation I had also found wanting, that the corned beef and Irish association results from Irish immigrant contact with Jewish corned brisket in New York.

The authors point out that corned beef, under various names, has a long history in Ireland. Initially, it was a largely aristocratic or festive dish, independent of the British. Later, the association expanded under British auspices, often to supply corned beef to HM ships or for Empire needs. Cork city is important in this history.

Finally the dish became part of Irish cooking as such. My 2016 post examines things essentially from the last phase, limited to the 1800s.

The authors point out that to be sure corned beef and cabbage had (as many foods do in any country) a regional footprint, following, too, an irregular family pattern.

Based on their investigation including personal testimonies, some families never ate it. Some did, or alternatively bacon, for the main holidays. Later in the 20th century corned beef declined in popularity while bacon enjoyed an uptick. The authors suggest that relative cost was the main factor in this regard. Conversely, the comparatively favourable price of beef in the U.S. encouraged its greater consumption among Irish incomers, hence the enduring association between Irish-Americans and corned beef.

But as I argue in my 2016 article, this does not mean corned beef and cabbage is a post-Irish-emigration development. I read the 2011 study as making the same point.

I found the three sources reviewed in my 2016 post literally within few minutes, and used just Google Books and only the full-view component. There must be other references in popular literature of the 1800s, and earlier, attesting to the use of corned beef in Ireland among different classes and ethnicities. Certainly the 2011 study encourages one to think these must exist.

One way or another, the association in Irish America with corned beef reflects legitimate Irish history. The fate of the dish in its homeland changed for various reasons in the 1900s, but that ends as a different question.

Whether popular commentary today will swing back to appreciation of corned beef as an Irish culinary heritage remains to be seen. I think it will happen, but time is needed, as for any upturn in a received wisdom.

Finally, one of the nice things about the food world – I refer here to its daily, vernacular form – is that it blithely carries on without regard to what the press or other tastemakers may think. Thousands of corned beef-and-cabbage dinners will be enjoyed this month across North America, and not a few surely in Ireland. This proceeds from the assumption the dish is, quite naturally, Irish. The banquets likely will go on forever, but it will be satisfying to some that popular assumption of authentic Irish character turns out to be right.

N.B. I liked as well the largely jargon-free tone in the article cited. The authors’ acknowledgement of non-academic literature is welcome too, e.g., writing by Myrtle Allen, Alan Davidson, and Mark Kurlansky. I say this without taking away from importance of the “professionalization” of food studies via the universities. But this development itself was considerably inspired by highly talented, independent researchers, whose work continues to be relevant.

Note re image: image shown above, entitled St. Patrick’s Day Icon Set Collection, is by mvolz, and was sourced from the Open Clip Art site. Image is believed in the public domain but any and all intellectual property therein belongs solely to its lawful owner. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


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