How Corned Beef and Cabbage Became a St. Patrick's Day Staple
Learn the history behind this dish—and find out what the Irish really call it.
Whether you're Irish or not, St. Patrick's Day is a celebratory time both in Ireland and abroad where family and friends gather together to share a pint. In addition to a dark glass of Guinness and the hopes of spotting a leprechaun or two, there's something else that everyone expects on St. Patrick's Day: a meal of corned beef and cabbage.
The boiled dinner consisting of corned beef brisket, green cabbage, and potatoes has become a symbol of the Irish diet, particularly around March 17th. But is there any merit to this legend? Do the Irish actually eat corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's Day, or is it a tradition only stateside? According to Regina Sexton, Food and Culinary Historian and Programme Manager, Postgraduate Diploma in Irish Food Culture, University College Cork, what the Irish actually would eat is bacon and cabbage. "A traditional dinner is bacon, potatoes, and cabbage. I'm not saying that corned beef and cabbage doesn't exist in Ireland, but it wouldn't be how we construct a typical Irish meal," Sexton explains.
In this case, bacon isn't referring to the crispy strips that Americans think of, but rather any cut of salted pork such as ham. "When salted, pork becomes incredibly flavorful and people in Ireland just love that taste," says Sexton. So, where does corned beef fit in? When Irish immigrants came to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, bacon was much more expensive and much less accessible than corned beef brisket. In order to recreate a taste of home in America, they chose to use ingredients that were more accessible, particularly from an economic standpoint; beef brisket fit the bill.
Meat aside, the meal itself is quite plain, according to Sexton. "Cabbage grows very well particularly through the harsh winters in Ireland. It doesn't need a lot of care, it's hearty, and it's in good condition [around the time of St. Patrick's Day]," she adds. Just a few acres of land could provide families with all of the potatoes they need for an entire year. And historically, even poor families would own two pigs—one to pay their rent and the other to be used for special occasions throughout the year. Put all three together and you have an iconic Irish dish.
Whether in Ireland or America, a meal of salted meat, potatoes, and cabbage was once considered a recipe for a special occasion. Today, it's different—"Irish food has changed so much in terms of its food culture in the last 30-50 years. Now it would be created in a symbolic way to mark St. Patrick's Day as a day of national celebration. It doesn't have functional utility anymore. It's more purely symbolic, if it's recreated at all." Sexton says that a special occasion entrée in Ireland now would be made with more expensive cuts of lamb, beef, or salmon.