December 18, 2017
Many staples of St. Patrick’s Day in the United States have little or nothing to do with Ireland, such as green beer and green bagels. But some Irish Americans might be surprised by another entry on that list of suspect foods: corned beef and cabbage.
Experts say the meal originated on American soil in the late 19th century as Irish immigrants substituted corned beef for bacon, which was meat of choice in the homeland.
“When they came here they found bacon was expensive,” said Niall O’Dowd, the publisher of Irish America magazine and The Irish Voice, an Irish newspaper in New York.
Mr. O’Dowd suggested another plot twist in the meal’s back story. Like Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of the Irish classic “Ulysses,” the dish of boiled brisket and root vegetables may actually be of Irish-Jewish extraction.
“The theory I’ve always heard is when the immigrants came to New York City it was actually Jewish brisket that they ate because it was cheaper than beef,” he said.
Jay P. Dolan, the author of “The Irish Americans: A History,” said corned beef and cabbage is a relatively uncommon dish back in the old country.
“I never saw corned beef on the menu,” said Mr. Dolan, who is American-born but lived in Ireland for a time. “If you ordered it, the waiter would not know what you were talking about.”
Mr. O’Dowd said the Irish “take offense at the idea that corned beef is the same as what they had in the old days back in Ireland.”
Pork products, particularly salted bacon, have historically played a much larger role in Ireland’s economy and gastronomy than beef has, said Marion Casey, a professor of Irish history at N.Y.U.
In fact, in the 18th century Ireland exported large quantities of salted meat to North America and other parts of the British Empire, said Kevin O’Neill, a professor of Irish Studies at Boston College. “Cabbage, of course, was an Irish mainstay,” he said.
But the United States was a different matter. As famine ravaged Ireland in the middle of the 19th century, large numbers of immigrants came to the United States, where prejudice against Irish and other Catholic newcomers was common.
When St. Patrick’s Day began to evolve into a commercial American holiday in the early 20th century, retailers and greeting card manufacturers used images of pigs as a visual shorthand for Irishness, Professor Casey said, much to the horror of the Irish themselves.
“Irish-Americans vigorously protested such an alignment of their ethnicity with an animal that carried all sorts of popular connotations about dirt and disease,” Professor Casey wrote in a book manuscript based on her dissertation.
From there, the shift from salted pork to corned beef, which was popular among working class Americans of all ethnicities in the 19th century, was a natural move, she said. By the 1950s and ’60s it had become associated with Ireland, appearing in recipe columns and restaurant menus each March.
“Arguments about authenticity are pointless,” Professor Casey said. St. Patrick’s Day did not become a major commercial holiday in Ireland until the 1980s, she noted, and traditions there developed without the dislocations of immigration and assimilation.
“The Irish in Ireland did not have to protest, as Irish America did, pig jokes in early radio and cinema through the 1940s,” she said. “Corned beef was an all-American dish and, in that respect, it has served Irish America well.”
So is it cultural heresy to eat corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day? Not at all, Mr. O’Dowd said.
In fact, he said, it is probably harmless if you even have some green beer.
Reflecting on some of the more over-the-top aspects of the celebration in the United States, such as the annual green-dying of the Chicago River, he said there is a tendency to romanticize homelands after millions of people move to another country.
“It’s a typical immigrant experience to overemphasize some of the things you want to remember,” he said, “and underemphasize some of the things you want to forget.”
Source: The New York Times