Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Corned Beef and Cabbage

This post concerns an all-American Jewish/Irish combination that is utterly delicious...

Uh, er, um... I was going to write about corned beef and cabbage, which has come to be associated with Irish-American foodways, and specifically the celebration of St. Patrick's Day. Corned beef, though, is not a traditional component of the Irish diet, but an ingredient that came to be used by Irish emigrants to the United States.

The original template for corned beef and cabbage was the traditional Irish meal of bacon and cabbage. Beef consumption in Ireland was largely limited to the upper class- cattle were typically employed as dairy cows, most beef would have been either exported, or consumed by the rich. Pork was the meat of the common people. Irish bacon, as opposed to the typical bacon found in the states, is typically cut from the back (much like Canadian bacon), not the belly, of the pig, and the pork is cured, but not smoked. The bacon is then traditionally boiled whole, and cabbage is added toward the end of the cooking time. Alternatively, Irish bacon can be sliced into rashers, which are typically fried as part of a full Irish breakfast.

In neighborhoods such as Manhattan's Lower East Side, immigrants of many backgrounds lived in mixed communities. Irish emigrants to the United States found that the bacon they were accustomed to was unavailable. Corned beef, typically beef briskets cured in brine, was readily available, however. Being brined, it was a common feature of Jewish charcuterie- to this day, any Jewish deli worth its salt prides itself on its corned beef almost as much as its pastrami. Perhaps taking a cue from their Jewish neighbors, the emigrants utilized corned beef (which must be cooked for a long time until tender) as a substitute for the bacon they used to boil with their cabbage, a tradition which continues to this day.

Tinned corned beef, typically imported from Argentina, has become a staple in the Caribbean, where it is known as bully beef and consumed for breakfast.

For a change from the usual corned beef and cabbage, try getting back to the Irish roots of the dish by using boiling bacon, which can be readily found at The Butcher's Fancy on McLean Avenue in Yonkers (where it retails for $4.99 a pound), or Prime Cuts on Katonah Avenue in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx.

Postscript: After your corned beef (or bacon) and cabbage dinner, by all means use any leftover cabbage to make Colcannon, which, in its simplest form, is a mixture of mashed potatoes and cabbage. Personally, I prefer to use a mixture of kale and cabbage in this dish, as the dark green adds a nice visual touch to the dish, and I include scallions (I find that leeks are a pain to clean thoroughly, though I do love them).


  1. The Corned Beef / St. Paddy story got a well researched telling at salon the other day. See if I can find a linkie...

    Don't have time just now to see where your version might differ - gotta run to my favorite food cart, Koi Fusion for bulgogi tacos.

  2. Thanks for the comment! The introduction of Irish immigrants to corned beef and cabbage has also been attributed to the commissaries at railroad work camps. Truth be told, I like boiling bacon and cabbage, but corned beef provides a more assertive, even gloriously vulgar, taste that the boiling bacon just can't match.

  3. We made corned beef & cabbage and mashed potatoes and it was wonderful. Then the following morning we took the leftover cabbage and potatoes, chopped some leftover corned beef and made "bubble and squeak" for breakfast.

    - g from Sadly, No (also known as.....)