If you’re looking for corned beef and cabbage recipes for St. Patrick’s Day, you’re definitely not alone as this year’s Sunday celebration approaches — but most Americans don’t realize the “tradition” of the ubiquitous fare is a uniquely US thing.
Corned beef and cabbage has long been an “Irish tradition” in America only, a typical melting pot tradition that likely stems from a mix of immigration, making do with what’s available and blended cultures.
As an American who lived for a time in Ireland, the corned beef and cabbage thing is one of the frustrations real Irish people find with those who identify as Irish-American. Over there, people I met would tell me it wasn’t something they ate and the impression given was that Americans seemed to flood the country seeking this “traditional dish” that no one in Ireland actually eats.
Many Irish folk theorized that after passing through Ellis Island, Irish families settled in lower Manhattan alongside other cultures — with pastrami and corned beef still staples in Lower East Side Jewish delis in New York City. (Sadly, also a tradition falling to the wayside.)
It was this coupling of cultures, they surmised, that gave rise to the “tradition” of corned beef and cabbage — in the absence of Irish bacon, immigrants used what was available to mimic more authentic Irish fare, creating the idea Irish people eat corned beef and cabbage.
So, were they right? Did the corned beef and cabbage tradition really begin in New York as a marriage of cultures, and not back in Ireland as many believe? SmithsonianMag seems to think so — arriving at the conclusion by way of a lengthy historical rumination on famine, war, death, starvation and exodus from Ireland. (In keeping with Irish tradition, of course.)
But then again, St. Patrick’s Day itself has only really become a celebration of “Irishness” in Ireland quite recently, it would seem. When I lived over there in the late 1990s and early 2000s, many made a point of telling Americans that March 17 was not a big deal for celebration over there — but in recent years, and perhaps to encourage US tourism, the St. Patrick’s Day tradition has flourished to a degree.
Whether corned beef and cabbage is traditional in Ireland or not, it’s definitely become part of the American cultural legacy. Does your family eat it once a year on St. Patrick’s Day?