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Corned beef and cabbage more American than Irish

When you hear “Irish food,” what’s the first thing you think of?

Odds are pretty good that you just thought of the words “corned beef and cabbage.”

And yet, if you were in Ireland, you certainly wouldn’t hear that answer. In fact, the popularity of corned beef is an Irish-American thing, not an Irish thing.

It all stems from a bit of history. Back in the 17th and 18th centuries, cattle were raised in Ireland primarily for export. Beef would be cured with “corns” (large grains) of salt to preserve it, then shipped across the Irish Sea to the British, the colonial rulers of Ireland at the time. But most of the cows involved were actually owned by the British, so while Irish labor went into raising the cattle and turning it into corned beef, most Irish people couldn’t afford to eat it.

Instead, they’d be more likely to eat the cheaper ham or bacon, alongside vegetables like cabbage and potatoes that were easy to grow (until the potato famine, at least). One popular Irish dish, even today, is bacon and cabbage, which consists primarily of these two ingredients boiled together, along with other vegetables like potatoes or carrots.

Boiling, of course, is the cheapest and simplest way to cook any food, seeing as all that’s required is a small flame to cook upon and a pot of water, making it a popular cooking method with the poor Irish farmers of the past. And salty cured meats, such as bacon or country ham, can benefit flavor-wise from a prolonged soak, as some of the salt will leach out into the water.

Of course, once Irish immigrants arrived in America, they found that corned beef, a luxury product back home, was more affordable, and so it became much more popular in the Irish-American diet, leading us to associate it with Irish food today. And it was only natural that Irish-Americans would incorporate corned beef into dishes they had made with pork products back home, including the traditional bacon and cabbage.

The best thing about corned beef and cabbage is that it’s simple to make. Sure, there are plenty of variations out there these days, and they might be worth a try, especially when it comes to the potatoes, since boiled potatoes just aren’t that tasty on their own. But the basics are worth keeping, and the basics are basic indeed: Get yourself a corned beef brisket, put it in a big pot, cut a head of cabbage into wedges and throw that in the pot, too, fill the pot with enough water to cover everything well, then put it on the stove and boil it until the beef is done. It’s that simple. You can also throw in some peeled, cut-up potatoes, too, if you want, or carrots, or turnips, or rutabagas — any or all of those will work fine.

Serve your boiled dinner with some vinegar on the side, since it goes quite nicely with cabbage. A slice or two of Irish soda bread (the traditional, savory kind, not the fruit-studded American version) would be a nice addition to the meal, too.

And please, leave the green beer on the store shelf — if you want something that actually tastes good and is authentically Irish, too, have a pint of Guinness or perhaps a nice cup of black tea with your dinner.

“In & Out of the Kitchen,” a wide-ranging column about cooking, eating and buying food, is written by Gazette staffers. You can reach us at

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March 18, 2013
3:54 p.m.

[ Flag Post ]

In most cookbooks you won't find "Corned Beef and Cabbage", but instead, "New England Boiled Dinner". Near the end, you mention how easy it is to just throw the corned beef and cabbage wedges in the pot, but if you put the cabbage in at the same time as the brisket, you won't have any cabbage left after a couple hours of cooking. Put the cabbage in last of all the ingredients...maybe 30 minutes before it's all finished.

Thanks for a good article.

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