Posted on Sat, March 17, 2012 by Slow Food USA
3 Comments | Categories: Cooking,
Written by Tim Smith, Slow Food USA’s Associate Manager of New Media
Last night I made corned beef and cabbage for the first time in my life. To be honest, it was the first time anyone in my family has made the dish, to my knowledge. This will come as some surprise to those who know me as someone who fully embraces his Irish-American heritage, but carrying on the Irish culinary tradition has never been a priority in our kitchen. That’s not to say we were without our ancestral culture. It’s hard to avoid it growing up Irish-Catholic in a working- class Irish neighborhood in an incredibly Irish city, but it was never something we sought out.
There certainly were little things, though—my mother, the daughter of an Irish immigrant from County Cork, drilled into my head that each dinner must include 3 things: meat, potatoes, and milk. This caused some confusion when I was introduced to the food pyramid in school and saw no potato section. My grandfather brought these “Irish food groups” from the farm in Cork to his family in the US and left most everything else there, but I yearned for something more authentic – I wanted brown bread and jam, the Dubliners on soundtrack, and whiskey in the jar. What I got was supermarket-brand bread, the Monkees, and two parents who didn’t drink.
As an adult, I looked to correct these cultural wrongs – as I saw them. I spent each St. Patrick’s Day of legal age (read: old enough to pass for my older brother) devouring the boiled dinner, Guinness, and fiddle music at Doyle’s Café in Boston; I would get my morning coffee and breakfast from the local Irish bakery; and toyed around with the idea of forming a band with my friends called Shilelagh Law (a reference to the traditional Irish song, “Finnegan’s Wake”). And now, I was going to be the guy who made corned beef and cabbage to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
So I set to it. 1.5lbs of corned beef, 4 diced carrots, 1lb of halved red potatoes, 2 pints of Guinness, a dash of this – dash of that, close the lid to the slow cooker, now wait 10 hours. Fast food, Irish cuisine is not.
With 10 hours to kill, my mind began to wander. Was my meal really authentic? I began to remember hearing voices with Irish accents (don’t call it a brogue, a brogue is a shoe!) proclaiming corned beef as an American dish—no one ate that in the old country. Could that really be true? I began to investigate.
My suspicions, it appeared, were correct. There are many different accounts as to why this “myth” came to be (some good ones are here and here), but most agree on the basics. Beef and cows, as was true on my grandfather’s farm and countless others, were far too important for their milk to be eaten, so most Irish families ate a far less-expensive pork shoulder (often a salt-preserved “bacon joint”) with cabbage and potatoes. When the Irish arrived in the United States, they looked to replicate this traditional meal, but found their beloved pork to be either too expensive or unavailable by their local Jewish butchers, so they switched to a more cost-effective cut of meat: corned beef. In some accounts, this new-found meal was an ironic (or tragic) twist for the Irish-American immigrants because much of this corned beef was actually exported from farms in Ireland by their British landowners, food not made available to the Irish people even during the Great Famine.
Today, as I sat down with this meal of ambiguous authenticity, I wondered if I had done my heritage proud. The meat was well cooked and tender. The potatoes had gloriously soaked in all of the flavor from the hours of simmering. But, I felt, something was off. I went to the fridge, poured a glass of milk, content that I had at least made someone from County Cork proud.
If corned beef isn’t your thing I suggest this truly authentic Irish meal from our friends at Slow Food Ireland. March is the perfect month for a good stew and the Ballymaloe Irish Stew, is the perfect way to celebrate everyone’s favorite March holiday.
We’re anxious to hear how you celebrate this or any of your own cultural holidays. Let us know in the comment section below!
Ballymaloe Irish Stew
Variation: Irish Stew with Pearl Barley