St. Patrick’s day in America is special. It’s is the only day where everyone claims the same heritage, unequivocally consumes more alcohol than even New Year’s, and people are willing to eat corned beef and cabbage. Rich, poor, red, yellow, black and white, we are equal for one day, March 17th, each year. It is a beautiful thing.
Corned Beef – A Brief History
There is some dispute as to the true reason this iconic dish is associated with St. Patrick’s Holy Day but, like most interesting food history, it is most likely rooted in colonialism, and when I say colonialism, I usually am talking about the British.
My son’s consider me a nerd because I have read whole books on the history of specific foods. I have read a rather large history on Cod. I also read several books on Rum, one or two on candy, many on chocolate, and why then wouldn’t I read one on the history of Salt?
The history goes something like this. Ireland raised most of the cattle, their British rulers (pre-1918) wanted to feed their troops across the globe, kept the best for themselves, and priced these Irish farmers out of their own product, forcing them to rely on the potato (and we now know how that turned out).
Like charcuterie in any form, the idea of preserving meat, packed in salt and/or cured goes back a long time. Remember that refrigeration is not even quite a century old, and even then not for everyone and certainly not for the poor. Irish beef, “cured” in salt (salted beef as it is still called in Ireland) was packed into containers, eventually canned, and shipped all across the British empire. Because it was too expensive for the Irish farmers to eat, it was deemed “special” and if served at all, on special occasions.
Enter the great migration. Literally millions of Irish emigrated to North America, primarily New York, via county Cork, the largest beef-producing and meat-packing part of the island (I visited the port in 2017 and whoa!). Upon arriving to the USA, salted or “corned” beef was very common throughout the NE. Called by different names in Boston and throughout, this beef was now affordable because it was so readily available to the Irish for the first time in most of their lives. Tacking on the fact that many historically Irish neighborhoods bordered predominantly Jewish neighborhoods, and their ever-popular delicatessens, corned beef began to take shape as an authentically Irish-American dish. Pastrami and now corned beef became the base for two of the greatest sandwiches in history, the pastrami sandwich, and of course the Reuben.
Today, you can buy tasty corned beef in most big cities certainly, especially those with a decent Irish immigrant base. In my town, Seattle, the best corned beef, available any time of year is found at Market House Meats (1124 Howell St. Seattle). I have purchased my corned beef for St. Paddy’s festivities from there several times but have since added the DIY fever to my own prep of this simple, super tasty, but not-for-everyone dish.
Corned Beef at Home
(Adapted from Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn)
1 gallon water
2 cups kosher salt
1/2 cup sugar
5 teaspoon pink salt
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons pickling spice – 2 more tablespoons reserved
1, 5 pound brisket
Bring all ingredients save brisket to a boil and then let cool completely. I let cool on stove then transfer to a container and refrigerate for at least one day. Add brisket and make sure completely submerged for 5 days. Remove and rinse with cool water.
Place in either Dutch oven or crock pot, add just enough water to be at least 1/4 up from bottom, add the remaining 2 tablespoons pickling spice, bring to boil, and then simmer for at least 3 hours. Replenish water if starts to get dry (won’t if in crockpot). Slice and serve or refrigerate.
See pastrami sandwich recipe but sub pastrami for corned beef.