Corned Beef – Ersatz Irish?


Where’s the Beef? 

An article by Liam Stack in the New York Times investigated whether corned beef is really Irish. Conclusion, more Irish-American, especially as associated with St. Patrick’s Day. The article interviewed specialists on Irish-American, and Irish, history who thought Ireland was really inclined to cured meat from a different animal, the pig. One thought the popularity of corned beef among Irish-Americans derived from early exposure to Jewish pickled brisket in New York.

Yet another further theory (quite unlikely, imo): American comics of the early 1900s jibed that Irish-Americans were too fond of pork, so the latter turned to corned beef to project a resolute, all-American image.

As to a Jewish connection, Jews traditionally do not eat pickled brisket with cabbage and potatoes. Sometimes it is baked whole, sliced and served hot, but not with cabbage and boiled potatoes, as far as I know.

More typically Jewish corned beef is served, hot or cold, in sandwiches, not as a set dinner dish.

Of course, corned beef in its wet-pickled, dry-cured, spiced, etc. forms is an old dish in Britain, as I discussed in an earlier postSurely, an established dish of manor houses and prosperous farms would be known  a hop and skip over the Irish Sea, particularly when Britain governed all of Ireland.

A look in Google Books produced these references viz. Victorian 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. An extract:

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 well-known in different parts of Britain. Hence, a cured pork product was also mentioned, but after the corned beef. The 1820s was early days for the Irish Catholic influx to America. It is unlikely the newly-arrived Irish in America quickly took to a previously unknown dish, corned beef, and introduced it on visits back home.

Unquestionably, the bulk of the Irish suffered famine in the mid-century which led to the exodus well-known. Nonetheless, the populace who stayed and still ate well knew corned beef throughout the century, per Fraser’s Magazine. This being so, there had to be an earlier history of corned beef usage in Ireland, with cabbage to boot. This is supported 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 added the poorest people ate bacon when they could have it, not beef. The bulk of people who left Ireland may not have regularly, or ever, eaten corned beef at home, although this is far from clear, but once they arrived in America certainly many could buy a prized dish of home they could now afford.

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 that the inns he frequented usually had a slow business, hence 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 neither refers to America.

Even this brief canvass suggests to me 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, but that is different from saying it is not an Irish dish. Many Canadians rarely or never eat back, or peameal, bacon, but to state it is not Canadian would be peremptory.

Finally, the contemporary eating pattern in Ireland, including for St. Patrick’s Day, is really neither here nor there. Eating habits evolve, everywhere, especially over a long period.

But if some Irish families stopped eating corned beef on the idea it lacks Hibernian lineage, they might think twice about it.

Part II continues the discussion.

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.