Enough with the Corned Beef and Cabbage

by Kerry Dougherty

We ought to talk today about Gov. Ralph Northam who with the stroke of a pen yesterday sped up the restoration of voting rights to an estimated 69,000 Virginia felons on parole or probation. You know, guys like cop killer Vincent Martin and Hugh Joseph Brown, the killer we wrote about earlier this week who shot his pregnant girlfriend and set her body on fire. Both were released last year by Virginia’s screwy parole board.

Northam’s executive order is a fairly important development. But one that can wait.

There’s a matter of extreme urgency.

It’s St. Patrick’s Day and I feel it’s my duty to deliver my annual reminder that corned beef and cabbage isn’t an Irish dish. No one in Ireland eats it. So there is no reason to serve it on March 17th.

Not that it will do any good, of course. Americans will believe what they want to believe. Just as I will continue to urge corned beef lovers to consume it on some other day of the year. Like Flag Day or Easter. But please stop pretending it’s Irish.

Yes, I’ve written this before, but it didn’t do any good. Supermarkets are running corned beef specials and customers are buying the stuff.

So here we go again:

For three years, in the early 1980s, I lived in Ireland.

I had my reasons.

One was that I was a cub reporter at a big-city daily who longed to be a foreign correspondent. A war reporter, if possible. That would have required years of yeoman’s work at the paper that employed me.

I was the impatient type. So I took my meager savings and moved to Dublin.

Suddenly, I was living in an English-speaking country with a war raging on its border. OK, not a war, exactly: The Troubles. I arrived shortly after the IRA prison hunger strikes – a volatile time in Irish history. There was plenty of work on both sides of the border for enterprising journalists.

I wrote some about the conflict, but more about other topics: the kidnapping of an Irish racehorse, the wild changes in Irish politics, the Irish criminal justice system. And nuns. Lots of stories about nuns.

During my years as a freelancer, I lived with various Irish roommates.

Why go to such lengths to establish my Irish credentials?

Because, what I’m about to say will infuriate many whose knowledge of Ireland comes mostly from reading the back of Lucky Charms boxes and the food sections of American newspapers.

In all that time in Ireland, all those years of eating Irish food and drinking Irish drinks, I never encountered corned beef and cabbage.

Not once.

Because it’s not an Irish dish.

You want to eat Irish food today? Throw that stinking mess in the trash and get yourself some cabbage and bacon. Or boil up some potatoes.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Ask any Irishman.

“There is no such thing as corned beef and cabbage in Ireland,” declared my old friend, Irish publisher Niall O’Dowd. “Never was. Never will be.”

O’Dowd, who worked closely with the Clinton administration on negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement that essentially ended the hostilities in Northern Ireland, has been a guest at the White House 25 to 30 times, he estimated.

Was he ever served corned beef and cabbage there?

“Never,” he said, proving that someone in the White House kitchen knows the difference between real Irish cuisine and some sorry American interpretation of it.

Still having a hard time swallowing the truth about corned beef and cabbage?

In a 2013 Smithsonian magazine, “Is corned beef really Irish?” Shaylyn Esposito explained that the dish was embraced by Irish people only after they came to America and lived adjacent to Jewish neighborhoods where corned beef was sold.

“The popularity of corned beef and cabbage never crossed the Atlantic to the homeland. Instead of corned beef and cabbage,” she wrote, “the traditional St. Patrick’s Day meal eaten in Ireland is lamb or bacon.”

So there.

O’Dowd, who immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1970s and whose brother is a prominent Irish politician, said Paddy’s Day was an unexciting holiday when he was growing up in County Tipperary.

“It was a religious holiday,” he recalled, noting that people went to mass and spent the day with their families.

Americans have changed St. Patrick’s Day, O’Dowd declared.

For the better.

“The Irish-American take on St. Patrick’s Day brought joy and fun to the holiday,” O’Dowd said, appreciatively. “And pride in Irish culture.”

Green beer, pub crawls, parades and marching bands all originated in America and made a sort of reverse migration to Ireland in recent years. There, the Irish have eagerly adopted many aspects of our outlandish American celebrations.

All but one, that is.

“They haven’t bought into the devil’s food,” O’Dowd said, laughing.

And neither should you. Not today anyway.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


10 responses to “Enough with the Corned Beef and Cabbage”

  1. Kathleen Smith Avatar
    Kathleen Smith

    Glad I didn’t buy on sale at $25-33 per flat cut. The best corned beef I have ever eaten came from a small family run Irish pub in Alexandria on King Street near Royal. Hope they are still in business when this stuff ends. The owner makes the corned beef himself. I’m Sicilian so my parents made the holiday out to be a Catholic tradition – can’t turn down a Saint, but we couldn’t wear green. However, corned beef and cabbage was served in honor of Catholics everywhere.

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    In Ireland any pork product is called “bacon”. The breakfast food we eat in America is called rashers. So, cabbage and bacon (a traditional Irish dish) is actually cabbage and salted pork with potatoes. When the Irish immigrated to America they couldn’t get the salted pork (called “bacon”) so they substituted corned beef. Personally, I like corned beef and cabbage and will order it at The Old Brouge tonight (if I can get in). I’ll also have a pint or two of Old Speckled Hen beer rather than the motor oil known as Guiness.

    And yes, I am descended from Irish Catholics who hailed from County Offaly.

  3. vicnicholls Avatar

    Soda bread. My former Irish boss who lived here a few years and moved back to Ireland, made fabulous soda bread. We never got corned beef either. Boiled potatoes, yes.

  4. William O'Keefe Avatar
    William O’Keefe

    Jim, you’re focusing on the wrong side of the pond. When the Irish immigrated to the U.S., they faced discrimination and lived in slums alongside Jewish and Italian groups. It was at Jewish delis and lunch carts that the Irish experienced corned beef and noticed its similarity to Irish bacon. My grandmother who immigrated in the 1890s used to fix it on St. Patrick’s Day, so as far as I am concerned, it is an Irish meal one day a year.

  5. Matt Adams Avatar
    Matt Adams

    It’s St. Patrick’s Day and I feel it’s my duty to deliver my annual reminder that corned beef and cabbage isn’t an Irish dish. No one in Ireland eats it. So there is no reason to serve it on March 17th.

    While true in the old country, the Irish that immigrated to the US are where that dish came about. It resembled the boiled bacon they used to eat on St. Paddy’s Day and unlike in Ireland beef was cheap and pork was not.

    1. William O'Keefe Avatar
      William O’Keefe

      You contradict yourself. The Irish immigrants in the 1800s turned to it because they could afford it and as you say it tasted like boiled bacon. Irish Americans made it their St. Patrick’s Day meal.

      1. Matt Adams Avatar
        Matt Adams

        How did I “contradict” myself? Those who immigrated here we’re no less Irish than those in the old country.

        It’s not as I say, it’s historical fact that beef was expensive in Ireland while pork wasn’t. Conversely pork was expensive here and beef was not.

        1. William O'Keefe Avatar
          William O’Keefe

          By stating that corn beef wasn’t an Irish dish. True in Ireland but not true for the large Irish immigrant colonies here in the 1800s

          1. Matt Adams Avatar
            Matt Adams

            I didn’t say it wasn’t an Irish dish, I was quoting Kerry.

            I stated it was an Irish American dish.

  6. Paul Sweet Avatar
    Paul Sweet

    I remember the Bringing Up Father comic strip – Jiggs always trying to sneak out to Dinty Moore’s for corn beef and cabbage, but Maggie would usually catch him and beat him up.

Leave a Reply