Here's Why We Eat Corned Beef on St. Patrick's Day

Here's Why We Eat Corned Beef on St. Patrick's Day

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Kelli Foster
Mar 17, 2015
(Image credit: Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock)

Sure, the Irish might eat corned beef sometimes, but it's hardly the national dish of Ireland. And the masses of Dublin surely aren't sitting down to a supper of corned beef and cabbage tonight. So, how did we come to associate this meat as a go-to meal on St. Patrick's Day?

What Exactly Is Corned Beef?

Corned beef is made from brisket, a relatively inexpensive cut of beef. The meat goes through a long curing process using large grains of rock salt, or "corns" of salt, and a brine. It's then slowly cooked, turning a tough cut of beef into one that's super tender and flavorful.

→ Cure your own! How To Cure Corned Beef

How Corned Beef Became Synonymous with St. Patrick's Day

Ireland was a major producer of salted meat, going back all the way to the Middle Ages and lasting through the 19th century. It wasn't always called corned beef, though. That didn't come until the 17th century when the English coined the term.

While Ireland produced large amounts of corned beef, it was nearly all for trade. Corned beef was considered a luxury, and largely much too expensive for the Irish to consume. Instead, they relied on dairy and pork, especially salt pork, a relative to bacon.

Our association with corned beef as traditional Irish fare can be traced back to the 19th century and the Irish immigration to the U.S. While the newly immigrated Irish were used to eating salt pork back at home, its nearest counterpart, bacon, was prohibitively expensive in the U.S.

Their best option for a lower-cost meat was, you guessed it: corned beef. What was once a luxury item became a food that was now inexpensive and readily available. So it was the Irish-American consumption of corned beef that initiated its association with Ireland and the holiday of St. Patrick's Day.

And as for pairing cabbage with corned beef, it was simply one of the cheapest vegetables available to Irish immigrants, so it was a side dish that stuck.

Do you eat anything special to celebrate St. Patrick's Day?

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