Is corned beef and cabbage Irish? Probably not, but maybe they ate something similar in previous centuries.
Francis Lam reports:
It was my first inkling of how strange Americans are about traditions on St. Patrick’s Day, a feeling reinforced years later by watching people of all races and ethnicities pretend at Irishness by getting plowed on green beer and painting themselves like leprechauns. But despite all this, maybe the most straightforward of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, eating the corned beef and cabbage, is secretly one of the strangest.
“My Irish family never ate corned beef,” the letter began. I’d just written a story about new immigrants in Queens, called “Where Curry Replaced Corned Beef and Cabbage,” and a reader was gently protesting my mention of that stereotypical dish.
“My grandmother was perplexed that Americans associate corned beef with being Irish. In Ireland, most people ate pig. Lots of bacon, lots of sausage (lots of trichinosis).
…Corned beef was made popular in New York bars at lunchtime. The bars offered a ‘free lunch’ to the Irish construction workers who were building NYC in the early part of the 20th century. But there’s no such thing as a free lunch. You had to buy a couple of beers or shots of whiskey to get that free lunch. And that’s how corned beef became known as an ‘Irish’ food. My grandmother hated the stuff and wouldn’t allow it in her home. I myself first tasted corned beef when I was in my thirties at some non-Irish-American person’s ‘St. Paddy’s Day’ party.”
Dismayed, I sent that letter to a friend from Dublin. “Every word of that post is pure gospel,” she wrote back. “We NEVER eat corned beef and cabbage. We mock Americans and their bizarre love of that ‘meat’.”
[Click to continue reading St. Patrick’s Day controversy: Is corned beef and cabbage Irish? – Francis Lam – Salon.com]
According to Irish food experts Colman Andrews and Darina Allen, corned beef was, in fact, a major export of Cork from the 17th century, shipping it all over Europe and as far as the sunny British West Indies, where they still love their corned beef in cans.
Most of the Irish who came in massive waves to America during the Potato Famine in the late 1840s were from around Cork, so they probably knew corned beef well enough. But, as the historian Hasia Diner argues in “Hungering for America,” they may have been trying to forget altogether what they were and weren’t eating back in Ireland
The Irish are/were great lovers of all things porcine, but corned beef had less of a stigma:
Many farmers in Ireland raised pigs for sale to help pay the rent, but somewhere along the line in America, that tradition mixed with the bitter cocktail of prejudice and xenophobia to turn it into a slur: “Paddy with his pig in the parlor.” The phrase may have had rhythm, but it wasn’t pretty.…
By the 1910s, pigs were all over St. Patrick’s Day cards and novelties, including a game called “Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Pig” for kids. “Irish Americans,” Casey wrote me in an e-mail, “vigorously protested an alignment of their ethnicity with an animal that carried all sorts of connotations about dirt and disease.”
But “by this time,” she continued, “much of Irish America had moved beyond mere survival. They ate pork and beef, salted or not. It was just as easy to claim corned beef as their choice for holiday meals as it was to claim pork. When the latter became stigmatized, one became preferable to the other.” Of course, by this time, old memories of the corned beef back in Cork may have bubbled back to the surface. In 1960, we had the first St. Patrick’s Day card reference to corned beef and cabbage, and before we knew it, little Chinese boys in the suburbs would be pretending to be Irish in the middle of March.
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