Ireland: The Irish national dish: why it's not corned beef and cabbage
Ask someone -- especially a North American -- who hasn't lived or visited here about what Irish food is like, and nine times out of ten, as they grope for answers, they'll mention corned beef and cabbage.
But investigation shows that, while people here do sometimes eat this dish, they don't eat it all that much. Hardly any of them eat it for St. Patrick's Day. And corned beef and cabbage is absolutely not the Irish national dish. Read on to find out why.
The first corned beef: food fit for kings
Some people ask, "Is corned beef really an Irish dish?" It is. Whatever might have been going on elsewhere in Europe, the Irish worked out for themselves how to salt-cure beef some time in the first millennium A.D. Corned beef is first mentioned in print in the 12th century poem called the Vision of MacConglinne, which tells us a lot about Irish food as it was eaten at that time. In the Vision, corned beef is described as a delicacy given to a king, in an attempt to conjure "the demon of gluttony" out of his belly. This delicacy status makes little sense until one understands that beef wasn't part of most Irish people's diets until the 1900's.
While cattle were kept here from very early times, they were kept mostly for their milk -- few people except perhaps the Swiss have ever so loved their dairy products as the Irish have, and the ancient Irish especially. ("They make seventy-several kinds of food out of milk, both sweet and sour," said one bemused sixteenth-century traveller and historian, "and they love them the best when they're sourest.")
But from the earliest historical times, for routine eating, the favorite meat wasn't beef: it was pork, since pigs bred faster and were less labor-intensive to rear. Cows were only slaughtered when they were no longer any good for milking, or for breeding purposes. Otherwise they were prized as a medium for barter. The size of one's herd of cattle was an indication of status, wealth and power -- hence all the stories of tribal chieftains and petty kings of the ancient days, endlessly rustling one another's cattle. (The greatest of the ancient wars of Irish legend was started by one of these thefts, the Cattle Raid of Cooley.) Unless your cow was past its milking days or had been accidentally killed, eating beef was the cultural equivalent of lighting your cigars with hundred-dollar bills -- unless you were a chieftain or a king, in which case you could sometimes afford it.
The hungry times: where's the beef?
In later centuries, when the cattle raids were long gone, the majority of Irish people still didn't eat very much beef -- because it was still much too expensive. Those who did eat beef, tended to eat it fresh. Corned beef again surfaces in writings of the late 1600's as a a costly specialty -- expensive because of the salt -- only eaten at holidays like Easter, and occasionally for the autumn feasts that have since become Hallowe'en. But then other factors, tragic ones, made beef even rarer in the Irish diet. It often astounds people to discover that during the worst years of the Great Famine, among much other food, Irish tenant farmers were still exporting hundreds of thousands of barrels of salt beef ("corned" beef, it then came to be called, because of the grain- or "corn"-sized chunks of salt used in the preserving process) to Britain and Canada. But that was beef that the farmers were raising on behalf of the landlords who owned the land on which they lived and worked: they couldn't touch it themselves, and couldn't possibly afford what little fresh beef came on the market in their areas.
Many Irish people, during that period, got their first taste of beef when they emigrated to America or Canada -- where both salt and meat were cheaper. There, when they got beef, the emigrants treated it the same way they would have treated a "bacon joint" at home in Ireland. (Click here for instructions on how to duplicate the Irish recipe for a bacon joint with cabbage.) They soaked the beef to draw off the excess salt, then braised or boiled it with cabbage, and served it in its own juices with only minimal spicing (a bay leaf or so, perhaps, and some pepper).
This dish does still turn up on some Irish tables at Easter. But it's otherwise much better known to North Americans, who are likely to see it turning up all over around Saint Patrick's Day, or (in some places with heavy Irish-American constituencies) at election time. Why the festive association of corned beef slipped from Easter to the Saint's day, on the western side of the Atlantic, it's now very difficult to tell.
Tourist's delight: but the native Irish aren't interested
Of course some places in Ireland will be serving corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's Day. But almost without exception, they'll be feeding it to the tourists. To most native Irish people, these days, the dish is too poor, plain, old-fashioned, or boring to eat on a holiday, or just too much trouble to go to.They'd sooner make something more festive ...if they bother cooking at all, in these days when the Irish cook (a) has as many frozen-food, microwaveable, and cook-chill options available to him or her as anyone else in industrialized western Europe, and (b) doesn't just go out to eat instead of bothering to cook anything. In any case, an observer of the supermarkets both in the city and country will note the appearance of a few packages of corned beef in the cold case during St. Patrick's week...but only a few. A true "national dish" doesn't put in so poor a showing.
This does still leave us with the question of what the Irish national dish is. If by this we mean the dish most often cooked at home when the cook (a) doesn't feel like simply microwaving something and (b) is thinking about "traditional" food, the winner might very well be that bacon joint -- various cuts of salted or smoked and salted pork. The joint would sometimes be cooked alone, or it might be braised with a small chicken keeping it company in the pot; it might be served with vegetables, or with potatoes boiled in their jackets. For holiday eating, the winning dish might be spiced beef, found at Christmastime in the butcher's window with a red ribbon around it, served cold, sliced thin, with soda bread and a pint of Guinness on the side. Though there are also people who will argue loudly for roast goose at Michaelmas and Christmas, or lamb at Easter, as well as for other festive occasions.
The Saint Patrick's Day Dish: an (ongoing) investigation
What people do eat here on St. Patrick's Day is a fair question. We put the question to one of our local radio stations, South East Radio, which serves south Wicklow and parts of counties Wexford and Kilkenny. They kindly conducted an informal telephone poll to see what people liked to eat on "the day that's in it". The responses we got were things like, "Eat? I eat pints." (One respondent referred jocularly to the pint of Guinness as a "shamrock sandwich".) One lady mentioned a dish her family sometimes made on The Day, recalling the colors of the Irish flag, and using cabbage, turnip and potatoes. But of the twenty-five people who responded to the informal poll, no one else mentioned any specific food as being of any interest. Meanwhile, inspection of two of the local branches of the two major supermarket chains (Tesco in Arklow, and Superquinn in Carlow) revealed a total of eight packages of corned beef, about evenly divided between brisket and silverside. These were vastly outnumbered by heaps of boiling bacon -- a couple hundred pounds of it in each store.
So the conclusion has to be that there's no particular food that's important to Saint Patrick's Day as it's celebrated in Ireland. Over here, the celebration itself is what matters. And it can safely be said that an overwhelming majority of the locals will not be eating corned beef and cabbage.
Since our website's emphasis is on European foods rather than North American ones, and since we think there are a lot more interesting Irish dishes that people celebrating St. Patrick's Day might enjoy eating, we won't be carrying any recipes for corned beef and cabbage here. (There are also sooooo many CB&C recipes out there for interested parties to choose from, and we'd rather concentrate on the less well-known, more traditionally Irish options.) But here are a few links to Web sites that have good-looking recipes you might check.
- Stephanie da Silva's recipe. The spicing suggests non-Irish influences, but it still looks good. Stephanie's recipe is the one which appears in the Irish section of the FAQ for the venerable Usenet newsgroup soc.culture.celtic.
- The recipe in Mike Audleman's and John Lyver's Dutch Oven Cookbook
- Something a little on the unusual side: a recipe for CB&C with Jalapeño dumplings.
- "The smell of corned beef and cabbage is always in the air come Saint Patty's Day...." A recipe for potatoes stuffed with corned beef. The article suggests that this is just the thing for "the morning after the green beer". (You know, if people stopped putting green stuff in their beer, their heads might not hurt them so much the next morning.)
- (By the way, who the heck is St. Patty? In Ireland, Patty is a girl's name. The correct short version of the name is "Paddy."
Meanwhile, looking for a seriously Irish dish to celebrate the holiday? Try this --
- Peter's Mum's Soda Bread Recipe(s): with our exclusive video tutorials
(The above article was originally written for St. Patrick's Day of 1995, when we first introduced our main Irish recipe collection, and is © 1995-2014, Diane Duane. For permission to reproduce it, please click here to contact the author.)