The Origins of Corned Beef and Cabbage for St. Patrick's Day

Americans know that on St. Patrick’s Day you eat corned beef and cabbage. We have embraced it as a requisite part of the celebration, almost as important as copious amounts of alcohol (green or otherwise). But this “historically Irish dish” actually has American origins.

Salon.com found that this corned beef association came about when the Irish moved to New York. Bars in the neighborhoods where they worked construction jobs offered “free lunches” of corned beef sandwiches. The only catch was that the workers had to buy drinks to get them. As someone who briefly lived above a bar in New York City that offered “Free Meat Saturdays,” I can say that this is a distinctly possible origin story.

History.com talks more about this association with the arrival of Irish immigrants to America. Their traditionally beloved bacon was prohibitively expensive so as a result they switched to new-to-them corned beef. Cabbage was added because of its ease of cooking (usually in the same pot for the sake of convenience and so that the beef would impart salt and hearty flavors to the cabbage) and thus the meal was born!

Smithsonianmag.com goes into an abyss-like depth of coverage about Ireland, its history with corned beef, and its immigration. This chasm of knowledge reveals that Ireland has a long history with “corned beef” but it’s a different style from what we think of as corned beef today (essentially it was beef preserved with salt crystals the size of corn which gave it an overwhelmingly salty flavor). But in this they were mostly merchants and did not adopt the corned beef that we know and love until they arrived in America and settled in urban environments with Jewish neighbors who shared the delicious joy with them. It’s a fascinating read!

Even though corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day is an American-born tradition, it’s one that dates back to the 18th century and was originally started by Irish immigrants which makes it authentic enough for me. So let’s celebrate this day the traditional way: With a massive amount of corned beef and cabbage!