The time to dress up in the greens is almost here on March 17th, and with it starts the season of green beer, milkshakes, and bagels. Though the green colored frosted cupcakes or the shamrock shaped cookies are not really Irish, it might be surprising to many that the traditional St. Patrick’s Day meal of corned beef and cabbage is not really authentic either. Like the many things associated with St. Patrick’s Day, this dish can be traced to when the Irish Americans reinterpreted and made some changes to the tradition that had come all the way from Ireland.
It is notable that the first-ever St. Patrick’s Day parade happened in New York and not in Dublin in the year 1762. Over the following 100 years, there has been an exponential rise in immigrants coming from Ireland to the United States. The new wave of immigrants also brought with them their personal food traditions which included items like Irish stew, Shepard’s pie, and soda bread. The preferred meat among them was pork, as it was cheaply available in Ireland and almost ubiquitous with all meals. The most favored pork cut was the Irish bacon, which was a lean and smoked pork loin, very similar to the Canadian bacon. But when the immigrants landed in the United States, pork was extremely expensive for most of the newly landed Irish families, so they started cooking beef—which is the staple meat for most Americans.
So then, how did the traditional Irish pork and potatoes become the corned beef and cabbage? The newly arrived Irish immigrants stayed next to the other ethnic European groups who very often faced discrimination, and these included the Italians and the Jews. The working class Irish New Yorkers were regular eaters at the Jewish lunch carts and delis, and it was here that they got the first taste of corned beef. They realized that it was cured and then cooked in a similar way to their Irish bacon, and it was thought to be a cheaper and tasty alternative to the more expensive pork. Combined with that, cabbage provided them with another cost effective substitute for the low on cash Irish families. When cooked together in the same cooking pot, the beef lent its flavor to the cabbage and in the process created an easy to cook but fulfilling and delicious dish that very soon became a favorite.
Once it became popular with the Irish community in New York City, corned beef and cabbage started gaining popularity all over the country. It was just the right dish for almost everyone right from the hassled housewives to the overloaded cooks working in cafeterias or trains, something that was extremely simple to cook and cheap at the same time with the ingredients readily available. Corned beef and cabbage were also part of the menu at the mock turtle coup that happened at President Lincoln’s inauguration dinner in the year 1862.