I can’t recall my mother ever making corned beef and cabbage, but I’ll bet that’s because she knew we kids wouldn’t eat it. Cabbage? Only as cole slaw on the side of our Monarch Diner’s Friday night fried clam dinners. My grandmother by marriage, Margaret Mary McCarthy, made New England boiled dinners, a descendant of corned beef and cabbage (CB & C) which she called “pot roast,” every Sunday I spent there on school vacations. It certainly smelled like there was cabbage in it, but the beef was not “corned. I stuck to the meat, potatoes, onions and carrots.
My personal history with the dish doesn’t shed any definitive light. Enter Food Time Line, my favorite resource for food history questions. Food Time Line was developed by Lynne Olver, my food research idol. Her archive is fun to read and all the “knowledge” contained therein is well-documented. Do you wonder where piccalilli came from? Or when Lipton onion dip was created? You find all that and much more on www.foodtimeline.org.
Getting back to whether CB & C is a dish of the Irish, or whether that’s blarney, I think there are a few different versions of the argument. Some people claim that CB&C isn’t Irish at all. Some claim it’s Irish, but it isn’t the traditional meal served on St. Patrick’s Day. Food Time Line dips into Irish Country Cooking, by Malachi McCormick, who said corned beef and cabbage is purely an American tradition. This is echoed by Myrtle Allen, founder and owner of the Ballymaloe House, a guest house and restaurant and now a pre-eminent cooking school run by her daughter-in-law, Darina Allen. Allen said in her book, Myrtle Allen’s Cooking at Ballymaloe House, that corned beef is “no more Irish than roast chicken.”
Darina apparently disagrees. In a 1996 Washington Post article entitled “How Irish is Corned Beef? Very — and Very American Too,” writer Carole Sugarman states, “…corned beef has always been associated with Cork City.” Sugarman goes on to quote Darina Allen as saying that between the late 1680’s and 1825, beef-corning was the city’s most important industry. And the corned beef from Cork wound up all over the world.
Brid Mahon is a folklorist who wrote the seminal book on the history of Irish food. In “Land o Milk and Honey: The Story of Traditional Irish Food and Drink,” she explains that Irish beef or corned beef served with green cabbage and floury potatoes was considered an epicurean dish to be eaten at Halloween, Christmas, on St. Patrick’s Day, at weddings and wakes, and that the tradition was carried to the New World by the emigrants of the 18th and 19th centuries.
On the other side are my sources, including Monica Sheridan, author of The Art of Irish Cooking and host of the television show, Monica’s Kitchen. Ms. Sheridan wrote in her book in 1965, referring to corned beef and cabbage: “This is a very popular dish in Ireland, where all the cheaper cuts of meat are pickled, as butchers find it very difficult to sell them otherwise. We have two main cuts: the brisket, which is a mixture of fat and lean, and the silverside, which is all lean. They are both cooked in the same way. The brisket is sweeter, but more wasteful.” Sheridan was an Irish writer writing and cooking in Dublin, and talks so specifically about the cuts of meat, it seems unlikely that she’s presenting an American dish. Would corned beef be made there and not consumed? Doubtful.
Portland, Maine’s own RiRa, a pub constructed of several different Irish pubs and transplanted to our shores, like another, luckier, Irish immigrant, states proudly that their recipe for CB&C: “came all the way from Cobh,” (pronounced cove) the city in County Cork from which millions of Irish emigrated during the Famine. RiRa’s description of their CB &C makes it not only Irish, but mouth- watering:
Our house-brined beef brisket includes the delicate flavours of clove, mustard, bay leaf and garlic, amongst other ingredients, to create a subtle and succulent corned beef you won’t find anywhere else because our recipe is just that – ours and ours alone. Brined for weeks, simmered tender for hours and then sliced and served with curly cabbage, creamy mash, and Irish parsely sauce, it’s a taste that could only have come out of Ireland. (www.rira.com)
Another early cookbook, Of Soda Bread and Guinness (1973), by Rosalind Cole, also presents CB & C matter-of-factly, with a recipe containing not only the corned beef, but six pounds of cabbage, along with the other ingredients. In the introduction, Ms. Cole talks about how with great ingredients, “…the Irish cook doesn’t have to resort to over-seasoning, oversaucing and overcooking to mask original tastes. … After all, the most knowledgeable gourmet will relish perfectly cooked corned beef and cabbage, chicken roasted with ham, colcannon – that creamy mixture of potatoes and cabbage…that make Irish cuisine unique.” And in her introduction the author outlines the mission of her book: “The recipes in this book are real Irish recipes, not simply Americanized versions of authentic fare.”
I rest my case and am heading down to take the finished dish out of the oven. Although there are all kinds of craft beers that could be recommended to pair with corned beef and cabbage, make it simple and chill a bottle of your favorite stout. And Slainte!