In anticipation of St. Patrick’s Day, tonight my son hung Irish flags on the wall and we ate corned beef for dinner. But my mom always told me that corned beef wasn’t Irish and I never saw any during the six months that I Iived with a family in the Dublin suburbs. I buy corned beef around St. Patrick’s Day every year only because stores put it on sale.
But why do they? Why do we associate this un-Irish food with an Irish holiday?
It makes sense, actually.
Neither the holiday nor the saint are Irish, so it’s only fitting that we celebrate with food that isn’t either. St. Patrick was the son of a 4th Century Roman official, and although historians disagree as to whether his homeland was in modern day France or England, it wasn’t in Ireland. He was dragged to the Emerald Isle as a prisoner and escaped as soon as he could. (For more on Patrick, see my post here.) Centuries later, in 1762, other men who’d fled the green shores hosted the first St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York. That’s right, the first rowdy celebrants of Ireland’s patron saint were not Irish but American. And they still are. Dubliners come out in droves to see the “Patrick’s Day” parade, and they come to see the show put on by the crazy Americans with green hair drinking green beer. (For more about St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland, see my post here.) So we have an American holiday created to honor a Roman saint. Why not celebrate it with a Jewish culinary staple?
At the time the vast majority of Irish emigrated to America in the 1800s, most people in Ireland were not eating beef, corned or otherwise. They couldn’t afford it. Pork was much more common, and it was heavily cured with salt. When Irish arrived in cities like New York, they found beef to be cheaper than pork and they also found their Jewish neighbors serving a salt cured beef that tasted similar to the bacon they enjoyed back in Ireland (which is not much like American “streaky bacon”). So did the Irish immigrants eat corned beef because it was as close as they could get to back-home cooking or because it was the cheapest meat they could find? I think the answer is “yes.” They ate what was cheapest back in Ireland as well as in their new homeland. Good food is important. But it’s also important to save money so you have enough left to buy beer. In fact, you buy the beer first. Then after a while you don’t care what the meat is. And the cabbage? Another U.S. substitution. Potatoes were relatively cheap, but cabbage was cheaper. Again, more money for beer.
And that brings us to the one aspect of the holiday that is Irish – the drinking. I don’t think the Irish drink any more than Americans do—in fact, I think most of them drink less. But in Ireland there is a culture of drinking and socializing in pubs—going out to drink rather than sitting down with a six-pack at home—and that is one aspect of Irish culture that we Americans copy on St. Patrick’s Day. People who would normally head home after work on a Tuesday will head to a bar instead just because it’s March 17. Hopefully they will meet up with friends, laugh, and have a “good bit of craic” as my host mom in Dublin used to say. (Craic or crack meaning loud boisterous fun talk, not a drug derived from cocaine.) They say that everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, and in an Irish bar, that’s really true.
So if the alcohol is more Irish than the corned beef and cabbage, why aren’t the stores putting Irish whiskey on sale?
In the interests of authenticity, the author consumed beer whilst writing the above article. During the editing and photography session, she killed a bottle of Jameson’s and was excited to discover half a bottle of Tullamore Dew behind it in the liquor cabinet. The photo is of an “Irish potato basket” said to be the type used by the poor to both drain and serve the potatoes. Without plates or utensils, the family would gather around the basket to eat potatoes with their fingers. It is a sobering reminder of the hardships endured by my ancestors during the famine years. Did I say “sobering?” Well, it’s a reminder, at any rate.
If you like to read about Irish immigrants, you might enjoy my novel Restitution, which features an Irish immigrant peddler who serves as a spy in the days leading up to the American War of Independence.