By Carolyn Twesten, Weaver Street Market Produce Merchandiser
St. Paddy’s Day and Corned Beef – A Tradition with a Surprising Origin
Have you ever wondered why corned beef is synonymous with St Paddy’s Day? I honestly never had until this year. (I blame Outlander for my interest in the British Isles!) I started hunting around for the history of the tradition. Not surprisingly, the history takes many twists and turns along the centuries. I was surprised to find it is strongly influenced by first, the oppression of the Irish by the English, and then, prejudices the Irish and Jewish peoples faced in the “New World.”
Saint Patrick and sacred cows
Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, who lived during the 5th century and is credited with bringing Christianity to the people of Ireland. The Irish have celebrated St Patrick’s Day on March 17, the day believed to be Saint Patrick’s death day in the year 461, for hundreds of years. Traditionally the day was celebrated with a feast of bacon and cabbage, as pork was (and still is) the most consumed meat in Ireland. In fact, cows were considered a sacred animal in Gaelic Ireland and not consumed unless the cows were too old to work or produce milk. English rule turned Ireland into a major cattle-producing region, however, and in the 1600s an overabundance of beef led to the invention of “corned” beef—beef that was preserved with salt said to be as big as corn kernels.
Fleeing the Great Potato Famine
Ironically, the Irish people who were producing this corned beef were too poor to afford it, due to the feudal system that ruled at the time in Ireland, and the mainstay of the Irish diet was potatoes. The Great Potato Famine that began in 1845 forced a million Irish people to immigrate to the United States, while another million starved to death. Upon arrival in America, the Catholic Irish faced prejudices from the existing population, who were mostly Protestant. As a result, they tended to band together with the also-oppressed Jewish community.
This intermingling of Jewish and Irish cultures inspired much of the next century of folkloric and culinary tradition, including that of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations and, you guessed it: corned beef. Irish immigrants would buy their corned beef from the local Jewish butcher, who made the beef by salting brisket, a kosher cut of beef. Brisket, a tougher cut from the front of the cow, lends itself to a long, slow cooking process in which the beef becomes tender and flavorful. Add in the staple vegetables—potatoes and cabbage—and a traditional dish is born. What started as a religious feast in Ireland transformed into a celebration of culture and heritage in the United States, a celebration that has persisted to this day.
What gives the corned beef its pink color?
In more recent history, beef processors started adding sodium nitrite and nitrate to cured meats to prevent spoilage and give the meats an attractive pinkish hue. There has been some indication that sodium nitrite and nitrate could cause health concerns, so many natural grocers—Weaver Street Market included—avoid products that have added chemical nitrite/nitrate (with the exception of a few local artisan-made cured meats). In place of these chemical preservatives, our chef Glenn Lozuke came up with an ingenious recipe that uses beet juice as both a natural source of nitrate and a colorant. We stock up on Mills Family Farm beef brisket in the months leading up to St. Patrick’s Day, then brine the brisket for two weeks in a solution of sea salt, fresh beet juice, pickling spices, and brown sugar. In addition to producing a delicious, traditional meal, we are helping to support a local family farm by utilizing one of the less-popular cuts of beef. It’s a win-win!
Now that you’ve learned everything there is to know about the history of corned beef, it’s time to grab a roast and make a meal! Try out one of these tried-and-true recipes for this St. Paddy’s Day, or any day!