Corned Beef And Cabbage Is Really An Immigrant Tale

Irish immigrants
Irish immigrants arriving in New York in the 19th Century.

Corned beef and cabbage is totally misunderstood by many Americans and the real story is something much better than simply a food you eat to soak up the green beer.

First off, it’s not really something that the Irish eat a lot of, and the only place you’ll find it in restaurants in Ireland is in the tourist areas because they know Americans like it. Sort of like how much of the stuff served at “Amish smorgasbords” in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania are not really things Amish people regularly eat (see also whoopie pies). It’s really interesting how a perception can be sold about a culture that is not really something that is real.

So why do many of us eat it on St. Patrick’s Day? When the Irish came to America in the 19th Century during the infamous Irish Potato Famine, many of them remained destitute. For them, the traditional St. Patrick’s Day meal in Ireland was (and is) bacon and cabbage, given Ireland’s long-standing preference for pork over beef. Their bacon is similar to Canadian bacon, leaner than ours.

Why did corned beef and cabbage become perceived as the Irish national dish here in America? The story is a classic immigrant’s tale. Like anyone who seeks comfort, Irish immigrants wanted a comforting dish and a taste of home, i.e. “comfort food.” However, during that time, bacon was too expensive for a poor immigrant. And even if they could afford the relative luxury of pork, they also had difficulty finding the type of bacon they were used to.

As so many poor people have done, they got creative. They turned to beef brisket, the cheapest cut of meat available. Their Eastern European Jewish neighbors salt-cured meat via brining. In fact, the “corned” part of the term refers to the corn-sized salt crystals used during the brining. It was also something they themselves were familiar with, as corned beef was also produced in Ireland, just not something that was as popular as their beloved bacon. And the Jewish version of corned beef was close enough to their Irish bacon.

Cabbage was a cheap veggie that they were familiar with, so the standard St. Patrick’s dish for Irish folks in their new country became corned beef and cabbage.

Given all this, corned beef and cabbage is less a celebration of Ireland and more a celebration of the immigration to America, through the story of food. A story of people escaping a horror to find a new life and overcoming new challenges, and adapting. With another trauma currently affecting a people, the unprovoked attack on Ukraine that is already causing millions of refugees, we once again have people looking for a new life in a new land. Just like we saw with Syrians a short time before. The right thing, the human thing, is to welcome them as well.

The last word is not a song but instead goes to some guy who used to write plays, William Shakespeare, who included this in his unproduced play “The Book of Sir Thomas More” about fear of immigrants. This fear was a plague in England at the time, much like it is a plague that afflicts many Americans today. It is strangely appropriate for our times and speaks to us over the centuries.

Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise

Hath chid down all the majesty of England;

Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,

Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,

Plodding to th’ports and coasts for transportation,

And that you sit as kings in your desires,

Authority quite silenced by your brawl,

And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;

What had you got? I’ll tell you. You had taught

How insolence and strong hand should prevail,

How order should be quelled; and by this pattern

Not one of you should live an aged man,

For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,

With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,

Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes

Would feed on one another.

You’ll put down strangers,

Kill them, cut their throats, possess their houses,

And lead the majesty of law in line,

To slip him like a hound. Say now the king

(As he is clement, if th’ offender mourn)

Should so much come to short of your great trespass

As but to banish you, whither would you go?

What country, by the nature of your error,

Should give you harbor? Go you to France or Flanders,

To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,

Nay, any where that not adheres to England,

Why, you must needs be strangers. Would you be pleased

To find a nation of such barbarous temper,

That, breaking out in hideous violence,

Would not afford you an abode on earth,

Whet their detested knives against your throats,

Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God

Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants

Were not all appropriate to your comforts,

But chartered unto them, what would you think

To be thus used? This is the strangers’ case;

And this your mountainish inhumanity.