They say everyone’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, but growing up in one of the oldest Irish settlements in the Midwest, everyone was Irish every day. We had the oldest continually-licensed tavern in the state — a pub that bears an Irish name to this day — and today’s holiday was celebrated with special gusto.
Every St. Paddy’s Day, come later afternoon or very early evening, my mom would usher us all downtown to that tavern for a bowl of beef stew before it began to fill up with locals and visitors. The entire pub would celebrate, packed to the gills with people until it was standing room only, everyone shoulder-to-shoulder until the wee hours of the morning, imbibing in a constant flow of green beer, straight from the tap.
It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I realized most Irish-Americans celebrate St. Paddy’s with a meal of corned beef rather than beef stew, and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned that Irishmen would just as soon have pork on their table as beef — for this holiday and every day, for that matter.
The pig is firmly ensconced in Irish culture. Ancient Irish folklore tells us that one night, Saint Martin bestowed the a piece of fat upon a girl at a farmhouse in the countryside. Wise, or perhaps kind and culinarily-inclined, Saint Martin saw that the farmer had a surplus of grain and chaff, and no animals to eat it. He told the girl to put the piece of fat under a tub overnight. In the morning when she looked inside, there was a magical gift only a saint could materialize — a sow and twelve pigs where the fat had been.
Beloved folkloric place aside, how did the pig become the Irish favorite? The thing is, throughout most of Ireland’s history cows were regarded highly for their milk, and considered too valuable to be used for meat. Royalty and the particularly wealthy could afford beef for special occasions, but not the commoner — especially in the days St. Martin would have been wandering around supposedly creating animals out of everyday objects. (He’s said to have thrown a mitten at a bunch of mice and rats to create the cat at the same farm. Given the era, it’s probably just a good thing he hadn’t done this in a more Protestant country where the girl would, no doubt, have been accused of witchcraft when she turned up with never-before-seen creatures, and burned at the stake.)
However you believe pigs originally showed up in Ireland, the Irish farmers later figured out they could feed pigs excess potatoes in addition to chaff and grain, and as they say, the rest is history. Swine reproduce quickly, and Irish farmers had potatoes aplenty. Meat was soon accessible to the masses, and to this day, pork is the staple meat of the Irish isle. Only in the past few years has poultry consumption begun to catch up.
This isn’t to say the Irish are complete strangers to corned beef. Ireland was, in fact, the world’s hub for corned beef in the late 1600’s. But it was the Brits’ appetite for beef that drove the industry. Every Brit from the middle class up had a voracious appetite for beef. After England conquered Ireland, they turned the isle’s cow herds to their own uses and began exporting tens of thousands of cows back to Britain each year.
Corned beef in Ireland was a necessity that only came about after it became illegal to export live cows from Ireland to Britain in the 1660’s. Needing some way to get their beef to the Brits or risk the collapse of their now-booming beef industry, the Irish began salting the beef heavily with salt the size of corn kernels to preserve it. (And while this is not the story of how “corned beef” was born, that corned beef didn’t resemble the corned beef we know today. Today’s corned beef is sweeter and not as salty, and for it we owe thanks to the Jewish immigrants who welcomed Irish men, women and children into America during and following the Great Potato Famine.)
The Irish and Jewish immigrant experiences were not dissimilar back then. Both pushed out of they homeland by dire circumstances and persecuted where they eventually settled, many Irish and Jewish families forged tightknit communities together. So when it came time to make a celebratory meal for one of their favorite holidays, it was only natural for the Irish immigrants to pick up a little something from the neighborhood kosher butcher, and it happened to be that corned beef was the cut they could afford. Paired with the cursed and beloved potato and the cheapest vegetable they could find, cabbage, it was in the earliest Irish-American kitchens that the corned beef tradition took hold.
So this St. Paddy’s Day, you could have corned beef, potatoes and cabbage as a nod to the Irish immigrants who settled here in America. Or you could really take your tubers back to their Irish roots and pair them with pork or bacon — or even pork and bacon — instead.
Main photo by Irish Typepad CC BY-SA
Diana Prichard owns a small farrow-to-finish hog operation in the heart of Michigan’s farm country. She works as a freelance agriculture and food writer, photographer and filmmaker. She is also the co-host of The Postmodern Farmer Show. Her work has been featured by major media outlets such as CNN, MSNBC’s iVillage, Modern Farmer Magazine and The Huffington Post. She has traveled internationally to report on agriculture, food security, nutrition, and policy, visiting countries in Africa and the Middle East.