Why Do We Eat Corned Beef and Cabbage on St Patrick's Day?

by JoHarrington

On March 17th, Irish-Americans sit down to enjoy a special 'Irish' meal of corned beef and cabbage. But it's not a dish from Ireland.

I'll admit that I was somewhat taken aback.

I'd just finished telling an American friend that her country is responsible for St Patrick popularly wearing green (traditionally he wore blue), and for linking shamrocks with the Irish.

Feeling somewhat devoid of her hitherto firmly held beliefs about the holiday, she asked with a certain amount of dread, "Why do we eat corned beef and cabbage on St Patrick's Day?"

"I don't know. Why do you?"

It was patently time for me to discover the one St Patrick's Day tradition that hasn't been exported from the USA.

Corned Beef and Cabbage - Traditional Irish Meal in the USA

St Patrick's Day means parades, parties, food and alcohol in most countries. In America, it also means enjoying this traditional meal.

It's both the blessing and the curse of a historian to know where 'traditions' began.

Our friends can hold onto romantic notions of their customs stretching back in an unbroken line to antiquity. They can vaguely believe, without giving it too much thought, that there were cavemen celebrating things as we do.

Historians don't get to share that beautiful feeling. We've traced the origin to a week last Tuesday. Or the 19th century.

Most 'traditions' were invented in the 19th century. The Victorians loved to make a song and dance of things, then pretend that's the way it was always done.

So after disavowing my friend of just about everything she knew regarding St Patrick's Day, we'd now reached the corned beef and cabbage.

"What? So it's just slices of sandwich beef with some cabbage leaves?" I asked, because corned beef in Britain comes in a tin. You cut bits off to place between bread and have it as a light lunch. At least I would if I wasn't a vegetarian. "That's not exactly a 'meal' is it?"

"You cook it."

Silence, as I contemplated this thing.

"Corned beef is probably something different there." She sighed. We've been frequently wrong-footed by the apparent fact that Americans and Britons can never agree on what to call a single food-stuff. You should have seen the confusion over jelly; dumplings are quite different too.

So we checked.

Silverside Irish Corned Beef

"Ok, I don't know what the heck that is, but it's not corned beef."

Beleaguered noise emitted on the other end of the Skype call. "It's traditional Irish corned beef."

"Do the Irish know?" Contemplative pause. "And in that picture, the 'cabbage' looks remarkably like what we'd call carrots, beetroot, potatoes, and what looks like a pickled onion in the middle there."

She burst out laughing, because we were actually just teasing each other. These conversations always sound so much harsher in transcript. "No, no, we can have other things too. It's not just corned beef and cabbage."

Familiar Corned Beef

"Nor even corned beef." I replied, still surveying that image.

Then I found my version of corned beef, as in the sort familiar to anyone in Britain. I linked it to her. It's the one pictured left.

"Yes! We have that too!" She enlightened me. "But we tend to use that as corned beef hash. It's not the kind that we use for corned beef and cabbage on St Patrick's Day."

"Mmmm. I wonder what kind they have in Ireland."

She rallied, knowing full well that I was going to totally burst her bubble. "Besides, our St Patrick's Day meal IS Irish. We have a side of soda bread!"

"Well, that's alright then."

Is Corned Beef and Cabbage a Traditional Meal from Ireland?

There's always a chance that I could be wrong. So I went to check with the Irish.

Once I knew I'd be writing this article, I did go on a fact-checking mission to Ireland.

By which I mean I e-mailed the picture to a friend from County Meath.

She confirmed that it's not a dish familiar to her. But if I'm going to start upsetting my American readers, she will go ahead and cook it IN Ireland. Then people can say - with all due honesty - that it's an Irish meal.

I wished her luck with finding the properly American brand of corned beef.

I also spoke with a friend from Dublin. He confirmed that he knew all about corned beef and cabbage.

But only because he's got American friends, and he'd already had this conversation with them.

It could be a traditional Irish meal, but he didn't know. He'd never had it. He'd check with his Mum and get back to me. He never did.

After that exhaustive survey in Ireland, I concluded that corned beef and cabbage was NOT a customary Irish meal. 

But if it hadn't come from Ireland, then where?

Corned Beef and Cabbage Apparel for St Patrick's Day

Corned Beef and Cabbage is a Traditional Irish-American Dish

Apparently American's favorite St Patrick's Day meal WAS invented by the Irish. Only they'd already emigrated to the USA at the time.

The answer was pretty obvious really.

After all, which was the only country in the world tucking into their traditional St Patrick's Day dish of corned beef and cabbage (and carrots, beetroot, onions, potatoes, soda bread...)?

It was fairly apparent that the Americans had invented this March 17th custom, and therefore the recipe itself. But it would be good to find out why, where and how it gained the reputation of being Irish.

The origin lay in the 19th century (told you!), in the tenement slums of New York. Starving Irish had poured into the city after the genocide. They were now eking out a living as best they could.

They had brought with them their traditions, which did indeed hark back to Ireland. But those customs were about to take a decidedly US twist.

For centuries, the Catholic Irish had marked St Patrick's Day with a special meal at home.

A firm favorite was unsliced back bacon, boiled and served with cabbage and potatoes. If available, other vegetables were chucked into the mix. The whole dish would be presented with a sauce.

Often this would merely be the boiling juices trickled over the top. But if they were feeling particularly flush, the Irish family would pour over some white sauce (a mixture of flour, butter, milk and parsley, though another herb can be substituted).

Bacon and cabbage was thus the closest thing that Ireland got to a traditional special meal for St Patrick's Day. But they weren't adverse to eating it any other time too.

Naturally, given the circumstances from which they'd fled, and now found themselves, this dish was a distant memory. It was certainly not anything that a resident of the Five Points could afford to cook.

So they got creative. There was no bacon in their price range, so they took inspiration from their Jewish neighbors. The Jews had a salt beef, cured or pickled in brine, the preparation for which they'd brought with them from Eastern Europe.

Generally cut from older cattle, hence being quite tough, it sold for a lot less than other kinds of meat. The Irish could afford it! At least once in a while. So that was their bacon substitute. This briny beef brisket is what's today known as corned beef in America.

Guess what was the cheapest vegetable you could buy in the New York slum area?

Voila!  Corned beef and cabbages was invented!  Not over in the Emerald Isle, but in the middle of lower Manhattan. The people who conceived of it, and popularized the dish, had indeed been born in Ireland. However, they were now Irish-Americans.

Their St Patrick's Day religious observances called for the the best meal they could produce on March 17th. Right then and there, that was corned beef and cabbage. Hence the association stuck and it's still a thing in the USA today.

Traditional Irish Recipes for St Patrick's Day

Flick through these Irish cookbooks for other ideas on what to eat on St Patrick's Day.
Updated: 03/16/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 04/05/2015

Opportune was the conclusion I came up with too, when I was studying this at Uni. Half the time it was out of sight out of mind too. I guess it's why those sort of people get on.

frankbeswick on 04/05/2015

I can understand how some people can watch others starving for profit: greed and hatred. They despised the Irish, wanted them dead and saw famine as a useful way of effecting this. Genocide was not planned, but was opportune, taken up willingly by a section of the British ruling class. Greed for profit was the only goal of some. It dominates their minds and hearts at the expense of all else.

JoHarrington on 04/05/2015

It's freaking tragic how much food came out of Ireland in the 19th century. I don't understand how anyone could watch a people starving for profit.

JoHarrington on 04/05/2015

Frank - I never thought to wonder about the soil. I bet this accounts for regional differences in food consumption too, at least back in the day before supermarkets.

JoHarrington on 04/05/2015

Madelyn - You're very welcome. It was a Californian with whom I was chatting about it! So perhaps you're missing out there, or she's adding random stuff.

frankbeswick on 03/23/2015

I have just done some research. Irish corned beef was a major export in the nineteenth century, though for most Irish it was a luxury hardly obtainable. The export of corned beef added to the effects of the potato famine.

frankbeswick on 03/23/2015

You are right that this meal is in no sense traditional. It is, as you say, a descendant of a characteristically Irish dish, bacon, cabbage and potatoes. I suppose that the emigrants ate some characteristically Irish food to remember home.

There is a perfect rationale to this dish. The Irish grew potatoes and they kept pigs. Cabbages grow easily in the Irish climate. As Ireland lies on a bed of limestone, there are some limy soils, which cabbages like to grow in. The beetroot that you show as added to the dish is a very versatile vegetable that grows in a variety of conditions [it is a descendant of the genetically varied sea beet and grows easily.] So the poorer soils of the West of Ireland could be guaranteed to grow this vegetable.

The poorer people of Britain and Ireland were not great beef eaters [until corned beef came in.] This is despite the rubbish talked about the roast beef of old England.The poor, of whom there were many in Ireland, could only afford corned beef, which was a luxury substitute for bacon.

Madelyn on 03/22/2015

I've never ever heard of this dish before, lolwut?!?! Maybe it's just not a West Coast thing...I'm a California girl. We celebrate St. Patties with tacos and beer...but then again, I only know Irish-Mexicans so *cough* This has been a highly entertaining read. Thanks for sharing!

JoHarrington on 03/12/2014

I always appreciate your humour. :)

I love trying out food from all over the world, and from many different cultures. If it's vegetarian and looks, smells and tastes delicious, then I'm right there with my fork. So what would you cook for this 'white girl'? *waits with cutlery*

I'm glad to hear that my article brought back such good memories!

cmoneyspinner on 03/12/2014

JoHarrington – Glad you appreciate my humor.
It goes deeper than you know. Allow me to share.

My mom once told me my grandfather, her father, was Irish or from Ireland, or had some of Irish roots. She never really clarified. We used to tease my aunt, my mother's sister, about always cooking “white people food”. But the best dish she ever made was corned beef and cabbage. To top that off she worked at a dress shop located in Miami Beach, Florida. Miami Beach was loaded with rich retired Jews. So how my aunt learn how to prepare corned beef and cabbage? We don't know!! But it was a dish none of us would ever turn down!!

I never met my grandfather. He died before I was born. My mother and aunt passed away many years ago. So as I was reading your article, memories that had been buried in my subconscious started resurfacing. They were so sweet but I started cracking up!!! :)

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