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 you can read countless media stories on both sides of the Atlantic that recommend corned beef and cabbage for SPD but often with a hint of exasperation, as if the dish really isn’t Irish.

Just yesterday, I discovered a salutary 2011 academic study entitled Irish Corned Beef: a Culinary History. It was published by the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) and was 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 really results from Irish immigrant contact with Jewish corned brisket in New York, in particular.

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 investigations including personal testimonies, some families never ate it. Some did, or alternatively bacon, for the main holidays. The authors suggest that later in the 20th century corned beef declined in popularity while bacon enjoyed an uptick. They suggest that the relative cost of these meats was the main factor in this regard. Conversely, the comparatively favourable price of beef in the U.S. encouraged a greater consumption of that 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 had found the three sources, reviewed in my 2016 post, literally within few minutes, and I used just Google Books and only the full-view component. I’m sure there are other references in popular literature of the 1800s, and earlier, attesting to the enjoyment of corned beef in different parts of Ireland and among different classes and ethnicities.

In any case, the valuable 2011 study of two Irish food specialists encourages me to think such evidence must exist.

Whether the popular commentary of today will swing back to appreciating corned beef as an Irish culinary datum remains to be seen. I think this will happen, but it will take time, as for any received wisdom to be changed.

Finally, one of the nice things about the food world – here I refer to its daily, vernacular form well-outside the halls of academia – is that it blithely carries on without regard to what the press or other tastemakers may think. Hundreds or thousands of corned beef and cabbage dinners will be enjoyed this month across North America and not a few I’m sure in Ireland, under the assumption the dish is naturally Irish. This will carry on likely forever, but it will be satisfying to some who have thought about this that the assumed national character turns out to be right.

N.B. I liked as well the largely jargon-free tone of the 2011 article. Its acknowledgement of the relevance of non-academic literature was welcome too, with reference to writers such as Myrtle Allen, Alan Davidson, and Mark Kurlansky among others. I say this without taking away from the importance of the recent “professionalization” of food studies via the academy. As this development itself was inspired by independent researchers (non-university-based), whose investigations in food history continue to be relevant.

Note re image: the image shown is entitled St. Patrick’s Day Icon Set Collection, by mvolz, was sourced at this site. It is believed in the public domain. Used here for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property therein resides solely in its lawful owner, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.


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