If there’s one thing I was born to do, its making a good sandwich.
I perfected this gift working in an assortment of Long Island delis — back in the day. It was a career move that did not bring my mom much comfort, but I enjoyed it and gained an incredible amount of inner joy.
One of the places I worked was Knott’s Deli — the setting of Chapter One: Apple Sauce and Grape Jelly in my book Corporation YOU: A Business Plan for the Soul.
It’s was St. Patrick’s Day and I was working behind the counter. Of course, Corned Beef and Cabbage was on the menu.
A young woman, in her early 20’s, had just joined the crew. She was an immigrant from the Emerald Isle, so Mr. Knott put this Irish-brogue young lass on the lunch crew — even though she didn’t have the experience.
After the lunch specials were unveiled, she humbly approached me.
“Jim, can I ask you a question,” she asked.
“What it is?” I said in reply.
She looked up to see if anyone else was listening, then signaled for me to follow her to the display case.
“What is that?” she whispered as she pointed to the Corned Beef and Cabbage.
“You’re kidding me,” I said, believing she was joking.
“No, what is it?” she again asked.
“It’s your national dish,” I replied.
“I’ve never seen that in all-my-life,” she said, with a sense of bewilderment.
“It’s Corned Beef and Cabbage,” I added, believing that she would at least recognized the dish after it was named. She didn’t. “You’ve never had Corned Beef and Cabbage?”
“Never before,” she replied.
“I thought you were from Ireland,” I said, now questioning here heritage.
“I am,” she replied. “No one eats that in Ireland.”
Needless to say, I was astonished. I thought the only reason we (as in we from Irish-descent) ate Corned Beef and Cabbage every St. Paddy’s Day was because that’s what our ancestors ate in Ireland. I was wrong. Dead wrong.
If I was wrong about Corned-beef and cabbage, could I’ve also been mislead by my Polish ancestry, as well? Did I down all that Keilbasa for all the wrong reasons too, I began to dread.
So, why do we Irish eat Corned-beef on St. Paddy’s Day? I had to know, and so my search for the truth began.
If you google Corned-beef, you’ll discover the St. Patrick Day dish was invented in Ireland.
However, the Irish people producing the corned beef were so poor, they could not afford beef — or even Corned-beef. So, for the first 200 years of it’s existence, the Irish went without their beloved Corned beef. If, by pure luck, an Irishman could afford meat at all, salted pork or bacon was the affordable product of choice.
Let’s fast-forward through Irish history, shall we, passed the English oppression, the Potato Famine, the Great Migration … yada, yada, yada.
Though still poor, the Irish immigrants in America were able to make more money in the United States than under the oppressive Crown. With that, they were able to buy meat and the meat they were able to buy was a kosher cut brisket.
Since the brisket is a tougher cut, the Kosher butchers made the it more flavorful and tender by salting it. So, the corned beef we Irish eat today is actually Jewish Corned Beef, however, the Irish added their beloved potatoes and the cheapest vegetable the could buy: cabbage!
The Irish in America transformed the religious holy day into a celebration of Ireland culture with Corned Beef and cabbage as their celebratory meal.
The cultural connection between Irish and Jewish immigrants appears to be lost in time, but the roots of these two groups of immigrants in American experience go deep. (It personally codifies why I have such an affinity for all things Jewish.)
It also reminds me of something my grandfather, James Farrell, once told me.
“Remember, the Jewish people will always be God’s Chosen Ones. But the Irish are his favorite!”
Our celebratory meal never caught on across-the-pond where they eat Lamb and bacon. In fact, buy law, pubs were closed on St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland until 1970 … and their beer in brown, not green.
They even spell Erin Go Bragh differently. It’s Éirinn go Brách.
James Henry is the author of Corporation YOU: A Business Plan for the Soul, ‘Twas, and the new book series Hail Mary. To contact James or book an interview, please contact Mark of Goldman/McCormick PR at (516) 639-0988 or Mark@goldmanmccormick.com.
Much of what was written was taken from Shaylyn Esposito’s article in the Smithsonian Magazine titled Is Corned Beef Really Irish? The rise and fall and rise of the traditional St. Patrick’s meal. It’s a great read. By the way, Polish people eat Kielbasa here and abroad!