Corned beef and cabbage are to Saint Patrick’s Day what turkey and stuffing are to Thanksgiving. It’s hard to imagine one without the other.
We know—or at least we think we know—the significance of the turkey and the trimmings. But corned beef and cabbage? How did that combination become associated with all things Irish?
It’s an American thing, according to Catherine Nicholson, a native of Ireland and a history professor at Kean University in Union. “Corned beef was cheap and plentiful on the Lower East Side where many Irish lived,” she says. “It became a food of celebration—the one day when everyone ate meat!”
Cabbage already was part of the Irish diet before they emigrated here. In fact, cabbage and bacon is an Irish staple, albeit one that hasn’t quite captured the hearts of the world’s gourmets.
“Bacon was more popular because you could steal a piglet easier than you could steal a cow,” says Irish-born Chris Egan, co-owner of Egan and Sons, an Irish pub and restaurant in Montclair. “And the pungent smell of cabbage hid the smell of the bacon, so if the tenant manager was on the lookout for a stolen piglet, you could hide behind the smell of the cabbage.”
Corned beef is not unknown in Ireland, but historically cabbage and bacon (with potatoes) is a more authentic dish. “Once people got to America, I suppose, corned beef seemed like a more sophisticated choice, compared with bacon,” Egan says.
Corned beef is a beef loin cured in brine for two to three days, giving it a longer shelf life—an important consideration in the days before refrigeration. Last Saint Patrick’s Day, Egan served 1,200 pounds of corned beef, with cabbage, potatoes, and two sauces, a Coleman’s mustard sauce and a white sauce seasoned with cloves and parsley.
“It’s one-pot cooking,” he says.
Still, it’s no easy task: Egan says he and his staff were cooking corned beef and cabbage 24 hours a day leading up to March 17. At least there were no suspicious tenant managers