Feast on Homemade Corned Beef

Try your hand at this St. Patrick’s Day staple.

Photo by Getty Images/LindaParton

In my grandfather’s day, you could get world-class corned beef from a half-dozen delis and meat markets up and down Delancey Street in New York City. But how did Irish corned beef get from the Emerald Isle to New York-style delicatessens?

Cooking authority Darina Allen says the Irish have been corning beef since the 11th century. The term “corned” comes from the medieval word for a large kernel of salt. The coarse rock salt used by butchers had grains roughly the size and shape of barleycorns, and these “corns of salt” gave rise to the name “corned beef.” The Irish mainly ate pork and mutton, reserving beef in all forms for special occasions. Though the English established huge cattle farms in Ireland when they conquered the nation in the 12th century, legislation in the 1660s forbade the export of live Irish cattle to England. Irish beef prices plummeted, forcing the nation’s meat merchants to salt-cure their surplus inventory to keep it from spoiling.

Irish corned beef became big business. It fed sailors in the Royal Navy, foot soldiers in Wellington’s army, and armies of slaves on Caribbean plantations. It was exported to Colonial America and to British outposts in India, Africa, and Asia. Dublin, Cork, and Belfast grew rich on a corned beef industry that literally fed the world.

But sadly, corned beef was too expensive for the average Irish farmer or factory worker. Common folks wouldn’t start eating corned beef in substantial quantities until the mid-1800s, when refugees from the Irish Potato Famine settled in New York City. Wages were higher in the U.S., and beef was plentiful, which meant these Irish immigrants could now afford a meat that had been financially off-limits for centuries. The Irish had long been corning beef, but not necessarily brisket. They adopted the latter from their Jewish neighbors on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Today’s corned beef differs dramatically from its Irish namesake, but its popularity hasn’t waned over the centuries.



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