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Why eat corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day?

corned beef and cabbage public domain image

They don’t eat corned beef and cabbage in Ireland, and they don’t dye their rivers green either. The Chicago River will get its annual dye job at 10 a.m. Saturday, March 12, just before the downtown St. Patrick’s Day parade.

This week just about everything about Chicago is green, and corned beef is on almost everybody’s menu. Chances are, if you asked the average Chicagoan to name an Irish dish, the first thing they’d say would be corned beef and cabbage.

They’d be wrong.

“We don’t eat corned beef and cabbage in Ireland,” Martin Rouine said emphatically. The consul general of Ireland added, diplomatically, “Since I’ve lived here, I’ve eaten it and enjoyed it.”

“I never even heard of corned beef till I came to this country,” agreed Bridget Looney, owner of the Abbey Pub in Irving Park, who emigrated in 1963.

“The Irish would eat bacon — Irish bacon, boiling bacon — and cabbage,” says Ken Harrington, king of Irish corned beef in Chicago. The third-generation owner of Harrington’s Catering & Deli in Jefferson Park, Harrington will boil between 40,000 and 50,000 pounds of brisket this month alone.

How did corned beef and cabbage become the quintessential Irish-American food? The usual theory is that immigrants couldn’t find or couldn’t afford the bacon they were used to, so switched to corned-beef brisket, readily available at kosher delis.

“It’s Jewish,” Harrington said, with slight changes. “The Irish took out all the seasoning. Basic is the key.”

Coleman Andrews, author of “The Country Cooking of Ireland,” scoffed at the unobtainable bacon idea, noting that the Irish settled in cities full of German and Polish butchers, and Darina Allen, the Julia Child of Ireland, noted in “Irish Traditional Cookingthat salt-brined beef was a major export of Cork until the 1800s.

Yet no one has explained why corned beef all but vanished from Ireland and became fundamental in Irish America. Did everyone who liked it move here?

And, if the emigrating Irish took corned beef and cabbage with them, why didn’t they bring along any other recipes?