For most of us in the U.S., corned beef and cabbage is synonymous with St. Patrick’s Day. But its association with the holiday isn’t actually an Irish tradition.
Corned beef is made from brisket, a relatively inexpensive cut of beef. The meat goes through a long curing process using large grains of rock salt, or “corns” of salt, and a brine. It’s then slowly cooked, turning a tough cut of beef into one that’s super tender and flavorful. There are many variations of corned beef and cabbage but none are technically of Irish origin.
Our association with corned beef as traditional Irish fare can be traced back to the 19th century and the Irish immigration to the United States. While the newly immigrated Irish were used to eating salt pork back home, its nearest counterpart, bacon, was too expensive in the U.S. Looking for an alternative, many Irish immigrants turned to the Jewish butchers in their neighborhoods. There, they found kosher corned beef, which was not only cheaper than salt pork at the time, but had the same salty savoriness that made it the perfect substitution. Resourceful immigrants began cooking their cabbage with corned beef instead of pork, and the Irish-Jewish-American fusion dish became associated with Irish culture—and therefore St. Patrick’s Day—in America.
While the Irish cooked the brisket the same way they once made their bacon, cabbage was added simply because it was a cheap and readily available vegetable to pair with the cured brisket, thus creating the traditional side dish.