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Wednesday, March 12, 2008 01:58 am

The corned-beef myth

The real Irish preferred bacon, but don’t let that stop you

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Untitled Document

Good Grief — Not Beef!

I just want to put something straight About what should be on your plate, If it’s corned beef you’re makin’
You’re sadly mistaken, That isn’t what Irishmen ate.
If you ever go over the pond You’ll find it’s of bacon they’re fond, All crispy and fried, With some cabbage beside, And a big scoop of praties beyond.
Your average Pat was a peasant Who could not afford beef or pheasant. On the end of his fork Was a bit of salt pork, As a change from potatoes ’twas pleasant.
This custom the Yanks have invented, Is an error they’ve never repented, But bacon’s the stuff That all Irishmen scoff, With fried cabbage it is supplemented.
So please get it right this St. Paddy’s. Don’t feed this old beef to your daddies. It may be much flasher, But a simple old rasher, Is what you should eat with your tatties.
© Frances Shilliday 2004 notcornedbeef.tripod.com

What? The Irish don’t eat corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day? Apparently not. Though Irish-American celebrations from coast to coast will feature corned beef and cabbage, the only places in Ireland that will be serving it are restaurants that cater to tourists, says Bridget Haggerty. In fact, if corned beef and cabbage is associated with any holiday there, it’s Easter, and even then it’s hardly as traditional as turkey at Thanksgiving or, well, corned beef and cabbage on March 17 in America. Haggerty, who authored a book on Irish weddings and whose Web site Irishcultureandcustoms.com is a charming exploration of all things Irish, cites an Irish radio program whose host asked listeners to call in and discuss what they eat on St. Patrick’s Day. One caller referred to a pint of Guinness as a “shamrock sandwich”; another said, “Eat? I eat pints!”
“That’s sounds about right,” said an acquaintance of mine. “To the Irish, every day is St. Patrick’s Day.” I didn’t take his remark seriously, though: He lived in Scotland for five years.
The consensus of the 25 callers to that Irish radio program was there was no consensus: no food or foods that are traditional for St. Patrick’s Day, unless you count that beer — and the Irish don’t even color it green. How did corned beef and cabbage become de rigueur in American St. Patrick’s Day celebrations? The most likely explanation is that the prosperity experienced by Irish immigrants in the New World enabled them to afford delicacies that had been far beyond their means in the “auld sod.”
Corned beef unquestionably was a delicacy, as was any beef, although cabbage was — and is — routine fare for rich and poor alike. According to Haggerty, the first Irish mention of corned beef occurs in a 12th century poem, “Vision of MacConglinne,” in which corned beef is given to a king to force the “demon of gluttony” out of his belly. For centuries, cows were kept by the vast majority of Irish only for milk; raising cattle for meat required far more grazing pasture than was available to the average peasant. Pigs were another matter, because they could be fed with kitchen scraps and potatoes. As Shilladay’s poem says, pork — and not much of it at that — was the only meat most Irish ever ate. In fact, it wasn’t until the 20th century that beef in any form became common in the average Irish diet. The other protein readily available in the island nation was fish — until very recently most often fried, as were the potatoes that accompanied it. The main ingredient used to make corned beef — salt — was also an expensive commodity out of the reach of most Irish for centuries. Shilladay notes that James Joyce mentions corned beef in his novel The Dubliners but says that “Dublin has always been culturally English than Irish. She may well be right, but I’ll bet that more than a few Dubliners would take exception to that observation! Sadly, another cherished tradition turns out to be hollow. George Washington and the cherry tree, King George II standing for the “Hallelujah Chorus” in Handel’s Messiah (which, incidentally, premiered in Dublin in 1742) . . . is nothing sacred anymore? So what if it’s a myth? Corned beef and cabbage may not be traditional St. Patrick’s Day fare in Ireland, but it’s been a part of my American Irish tradition my whole life and I’ll be making it again this March 17. After all, if it was good enough for President Grover Cleveland, it’s good enough for me. Cleveland is said to have smelled the corned beef and cabbage being prepared in the White House servants’ quarters and demanded that he be served that instead of the dinner planned for him. “It’s the best dinner I’d had for months,” said he. With a little Irish luck, maybe that anecdote isn’t even a myth!
Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@insightbb.com.
I’ll be making this truly traditional Irish soda bread to go along with our corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day. Soda bread contains no butter or other fat, and so it quickly becomes stale; it’s best eaten while still warm, though leftovers are good when sliced and toasted.
IRISHSODABREAD
4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon baking soda 2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt 2 cups buttermilk, room temperature
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. The rack should be in the middle of the oven. Grease a 9-inch cake pan and set it aside. In a large bowl, stir the flour, baking soda, and salt to combine them thoroughly. Form a well in the flour mixture and pour in the buttermilk. Stir vigorously to form a soft dough. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and with floured hands knead gently 20 times — about a minute. It is important not to overwork the dough, or the bread will be tough. Shape the dough into an 8-inch disc and place it in the greased pan. Slash an X into the top of the dough with a knife and place the pan in the oven. Bake for about 50 minutes, or until the bread is golden brown and sounds hollow when thumped. Cool on a rack.
Variations Dill-and-scallion soda bread: Add 1/3 cup of snipped fresh dill and 1/3 cup of minced scallions to the buttermilk before adding it to the flour mixture.
Soda bread with raisins: Add 1 cup of golden raisins that have been covered with boiling water for 30 minutes and then drained to the buttermilk before adding it to the flour mixture.
Caraway soda bread: Add 1 tablespoon of caraway seeds to the flour mixture before adding the buttermilk.
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