The wearing of the green is nearly upon us, and so the season of green beer, bagels and milkshakes has begun. While there’s nothing particularly Irish about shamrock-shaped cookies or green-frosted cupcakes, you might be surprised to learn that the traditional St. Paddy’s meal—corned beef and cabbage—is no more authentic. Like many aspects of St. Patrick’s Day, the dish came about when Irish-Americans transformed and reinterpreted a tradition imported from the Emerald Isle.
The first St. Patrick’s Day parade took place not in Dublin but in New York City, in 1762. Over the next 100 years, Irish immigration to the United States exploded. The new wave of immigrants brought their own food traditions, including soda bread and Irish stew. Pork was the preferred meat, since it was cheap in Ireland and ubiquitous on the dinner table. The favored cut was Irish bacon, a lean, smoked pork loin similar to Canadian bacon. But in the United States, pork was prohibitively expensive for most newly arrived Irish families, so they began cooking beef—the staple meat in the American diet—instead.
So how did pork and potatoes become corned beef and cabbage? Irish immigrants to America lived alongside other “undesirable” European ethnic groups that often faced discrimination in their new home, including Jews and Italians. Members of the Irish working class in New York City frequented Jewish delis and lunch carts, and it was there that they first tasted corned beef. Cured and cooked much like Irish bacon, it was seen as a tasty and cheaper alternative to pork. And while potatoes were certainly available in the United States, cabbage offered a more cost-effective alternative to cash-strapped Irish families. Cooked in the same pot, the spiced, salty beef flavored the plain cabbage, creating a simple, hearty dish that couldn’t be easier to prepare.
After taking off among New York City’s Irish community, corned beef and cabbage found fans across the country. It was the perfect dish for everyone from harried housewives to busy cooks on trains and in cafeterias—cheap, easy to cook and hard to overcook. It was even served alongside mock turtle coup at President Lincoln’s inauguration dinner in 1862.
Far from being as Irish as a shamrock field, this St. Patrick’s Day classic is as American as apple pie.