Why Corned Beef and Cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day? The Irish-American History

On St. Patrick’s Day, it’s nearly impossible to avoid images of steaming corned beef brisket and wedges of cabbage on plates and bar decor. It’s considered an icon of Irish culture. However, those living in Ireland are far more likely to eat bacon, lamb or Irish stews to celebrate their patron saint’s feast day. So how exactly did this distinctly Irish-American tradition come about? The unique history of Irish immigration provides the answers.

Corned Beef History in Ireland

In Ireland itself, corned beef has historically been more of an export product than a dish eaten at home. Cattle were mainly raised for dairy rather than meat. Fresh beef was mostly reserved for the wealthy. The poor subsisted on cheaper pork or bacon.

When beef was eaten, it was often “corned” or salted and cooked for preservation. Irish corned beef provided sustenance for ocean voyages and was traded heavily to the French and British navies. However, it was salty and tough from the brine curing rather than the tender, spiced product we know today.

While the Irish produced corned beef for export, the average farmer or laborer did not include it in their daily meals due to the low availability and cost of fresh beef. So why did it become so strongly tied to Irish identity abroad? The Irish-American experience provides the answer.

Irish Immigration Shapes Corned Beef Tradition

The largest influx of Irish immigration to America occurred from the mid-19th century on, in the wake of the Great Famine. With an abrupt destruction of the potato crop, millions faced starvation and poverty. Coming predominantly from the peasant class in rural Ireland, immigrants arrived with very little.

Despite facing significant discrimination, Irish immigrants managed to find jobs and eventually better wages in America. As their economic status improved, they could afford small luxuries – including a bit of corned beef, which happened to be sold by their Jewish neighbors.

In Ireland, cattle were more beast of burden than meat-producer. But in urban America, beef was becoming affordable for the working class due to industrialized agriculture. Corned beef served by Jewish deli owners was cheaper and more readily available than other cuts like steak or roasts. It reminded the Irish immigrants of home while also representing their success in their new country.

Along with their financial rise came the transformation of St. Patrick’s Day from a solemn religious event into a celebration of heritage. Just as Christmas dinner or Thanksgiving turkey became associated with those holidays, Irish-Americans linked corned beef and cabbage to their ancestral feast day. It satisfied nostalgia for the old country while incorporating ingredients of the new.

Why Cabbage and Potatoes?

While beef stood in for a prized food back home, cabbage and potatoes were no strangers to the Irish diet. Cabbage is an affordable vegetable that also benefits from long simmering. Potatoes were a staple crop that fed Ireland for generations. Even in America, they were an inexpensive vegetable to bulk up a meal.

Combined with salty corned beef, the starchy potatoes and softened cabbage provided a hearty, comforting one-pot dish reminiscent of boiled dinners the immigrants had enjoyed. It used affordable ingredients but satisfied food memories tied to celebrations and better times. The Irish had created a unique Irish-American dish for their adopted holiday.

Should You Enjoy Corned Beef and Cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day?

While it may not be historically accurate to Ireland itself, there’s no question that corned beef and cabbage has become intrinsically tied to St. Patrick’s Day on American shores. Irish-Americans have shaped and adopted it as a way to celebrate their identity.

If you enjoy the dish, by all means cook it up in honor of St. Patrick come March 17th! But know that you also have authentic options like shepherd’s pie, Irish lamb stew, soda bread, or even just a pint of Guinness if you prefer. There’s no right or wrong way to cook “Irish” for this holiday created by Irish-Americans.

In the end, St. Patrick’s Day is about celebrating heritage. And the Irish-Americans who started the corned beef custom were doing just that – finding a taste of home in their new world. Whatever your preferred feast, embrace the joy and pride of the day. Sláinte!

History of Corned Beef and Cabbage and St. Patrick’s Day!


Where did the tradition of corned beef and cabbage come from?

Eventually, the Irish Americans began to celebrate their homeland and culture in their home away from home. And of course, there was a celebratory meal in honor of their heritage – corned beef. This was served with potatoes and the most affordable vegetable, cabbage.

Why do we eat corned beef and cabbage on New Year’s Day?

Many with Irish heritage prepare Corned beef and cabbage dinner on New Year’s day. It is associated with the fortune you should hope for in the coming year. Beef or pork is the meat of choice because unlike chickens these animals do not scratch in the dirt for their food.

What holiday do you eat corned beef and cabbage?

St. Patrick’s Day is a holiday celebrated by people of Irish descent all over the world. One of the most popular foods associated with this holiday in America is corned beef and cabbage.

What animal is corned beef from?

corned beef, food made of beef brisket cured in salt. Related to the word kernel, a corn is a coarse grain of rock salt. In North America, corned beef is brisket, taken from the lower chest of a cow or steer, that has been brined in salt and spices.

Leave a Comment