Corned Beef and Cabbage

This post is inspired by two different St. Patrick’s Day posts. One was from Julie at Happy Catholic, who offered a St. Patrick’s Day reality check versus those who like to complain. The other was a comment by John C. Wright’s on his blog, that corned beef and cabbage was the first American meal she’d cooked that her new Chinese adopted daughter had gotten really excited about (thanks to the delectability of its smell while cooking away in the crockpot).

Of course corned beef and cabbage is primarily an American Irish dish. What do you think the Irish were eating in Ireland back in the 1840’s, before they had to immigrate?

1. Nothing, once the Great Famine started. The potatoes were all blighted, a lot of other crops got too much rain to thrive, and the price of all other foodstuffs went up drastically.

2. Potatoes and cabbage, before the Great Famine started.

The story a lot of us heard, growing up, was that an Irish farm family back then was so poor, and meat so scarce, that they would hang up a small sausage or a piece of salt beef over the table, and the family would rub their potatoes against it to get a little meat savor. They didn’t actually eat the sausage until it was about ready to get nasty. Without any potatoes, they had nothing and could only die.

The horrible thing was that Ireland was the breadbasket of England. The farm families worked the land, grew food for other people, and watched it being shipped off to England — even in the depths of the Famine. They couldn’t afford the work of their own hands; and since the land and the crops were owned by the landlords (frequently absentee, and not seeing the poverty at all), and the crop futures had often been sold before the crops came up, nobody would stop shipping the grain. People died trying to eat grass or dirt.

The other horrible thing was that Ireland since its settling had been primarily cattle country. Sheep was not the Irish animal of choice; cows were everything, from money to legal status to culture. The Irish heroes fought for the choice Champion’s Portion of beef. The heroic Irish songs were always singing of beef being roasted in the hall, or being boiled in holes for the Fenians when they were out and about. (Which archaeologists have now discovered was the preferred method, back in the mists of Irish prehistory. Lots of boiling holes, and lots of happy archaeologist cooks.) Even in the 1800’s, there were still big roving herds of cattle up in Ulster. So there were huge cattle drives through Ireland every year, conducted by migratory young men known as… you guessed it… “cowboys”. That’s where the Texans got the whole idea.

Pork, meat soup always on the hearth, cheese, butter, lard, beer, bread… the Irish instinct was to always feed guests something non-vegetarian, and to always present a groaning table. But in the 1840’s, that instinct was perpetually frustrated. There wasn’t enough to feed the family; there wasn’t enough to feed themselves.

So living in Ireland back then was like being a Texan who knew songs about steak and barbecue and burritos, and saw cattle drives and cattle at the fair every year, but had never been able to afford even one morsel of juicy delicious fresh beef. Meat was something almost theoretical — something that hung before your eyes, while you rubbed your potato against it.

So what do you think they bought as soon as they got the heck out of Ireland? Beef. Corned beef, which is a much better class of salt beef, but which even a poor immigrant could afford, in American cities. And they boiled it, the way that seemed right to someone from the British Isles. And they cooked it with cabbage, the way anybody lower class European would. It was Irish cuisine, just as soon as Irish cuisine had the ingredients to cook it!

So I wish people would quit going “Oooh, it’s not Irish really!” As with Irish drinking customs and their long notorious connection with patterans (patron saint feasts), the customs of the American Irish remember what a lot of the Irish Irish would like to forget. And isn’t that just sad for them.

The alternate name for corned beef and cabbage is a “Jiggs dinner”. I always heard that this came from the old “Maggie and Jiggs” comic strip about Irish-Americans. Newfies seem to think it’s a Newfie thing, though….


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