The History Behind This St. Patrick's Day Dish

by Meghan Bassett

It’s a funny story how corned beef and cabbage came to be a staple dish in the United States on St. Patrick’s Day. It’s not even the national dish of Ireland, so why do we eat corned beef and cabbage on this day celebrating all things Irish?

If you’ve ever tasted corned beef and cabbage, you either love it or you hate it. It’s a simple enough dish that can taste incredible or incredibly bland, depending where you get it. As a lass who is 50 percent Irish, I was used to growing up with corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day. It was a yearly tradition that some of us would look forward to, and others in my family would dread.

We never knew why we had to eat the same meal every St. Patrick’s Day. Whenever asked, my grandmother would simply say “it’s tradition.” The other reason we knew was because it was my grandfather’s favorite meal that my grandmother would only make once a year. So where did this tradition come from? If it’s not a dish that’s big in Ireland, why is it so big here in the U.S.? To really know where the tradition came from, we have to turn our clocks back… Way back. To the Middle Ages.

From the Middle Ages until sometime in the 19th century, the Irish were known for producing salted meats. It was their specialty, in fact. That being said, most of the salted meats created in Ireland were done so for trade. The salted meats were deemed too luxurious for the poor Irish, so it went out of the country and the Irish would have to resort to other measures for meaty pleasure.

The closest and cheapest thing the Irish could get their hands on in terms of cured meats was salt pork — meat that’s similar to bacon. It was a staple for the Irish, and could be found in almost every home.

As the Irish migrated to the United States, they couldn’t find salt pork in their new home, and bacon, the closest substitute, was insanely expensive. Thus, they turned to corned beef. It was the one thing Irish immigrants would eat in the U.S. because it reminded them of home.

The truth is, most Irish folks don’t eat corned beef and cabbage nowadays. However it’s become a tradition Irish-Americans readily adopted, and welcomed as part of the Irish-American heritage we have here now.

So as you dig into that corned beef and cabbage dinner before an epic night of celebrating, remember the history, and thank your Irish-American ancestors for keeping the tradition alive.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Images: Fotolia; The Kitchn; Giphy