Where’s the (corned) beef?3/11/2015
There probably aren’t many times that someone’s asked what sounds good for lunch and you emphatically answered “boiled cabbage for me, please!” And yet, when it comes to St. Patrick’s Day, people call every Irish bar in town to find out which ones haven’t run out of the corned beef and cabbage.
While beer and whiskey definitely take first place in the contest of St. Patrick’s Day specials, the traditional Irish dishes aren’t far behind. We did a little digging to find out why a salty beef roast and boiled cabbage slices make up some of the biggest requests every March 17.
Where it all began
Corned beef and cabbage just sounds Irish, doesn’t it? The name draws up an image of redheaded families of 12 sitting around long wooden tables with plates of meat and slightly soggy cabbage in front of each person, rolling hills in the view outside the windows.
People often think the dish is a traditional Irish cuisine dating back centuries. In reality, it was first served right here in America.
“It was the Irish-Americans who started it,” said Bill Boggs, owner of Sully’s Irish Pub, the oldest Irish bar in the Des Moines metro. “It was actually when the Irish came over here in the 1800s. The reason it’s corned beef is because beef was cheaper over here — over there, they started with pork and potatoes.”
The Irish version was traditionally called bacon and cabbage, and it consisted of unsliced back bacon that was boiled with cabbage and sometimes potatoes, turnips, onions and carrots. It was common in Ireland because most families grew vegetables and raised pigs.
It seems surprising that with our culture’s current obsession with bacon, we wouldn’t revert back to the origins of this meal. Although, the bacon used in the original dish would be unrecognizable if placed next to the typical slices consumed with our pancakes and eggs — but more on that later.
So corned beef it remains. Like Boggs mentioned, the switch to beef happened in the late 19th century with the Irish immigrants.
“It came about because the Irish immigrants in New York essentially couldn’t afford the traditional food,” said Sean Courtney, manager of the Royal Mile in downtown Des Moines. “Beef was cheaper, and since a lot of them lived in the same neighborhood as a lot of Jewish immigrants, they visited a lot of Jewish delis and a lot of Jewish streetcars. And since it was cooked and seasoned similarly to the bacon, they used that as the option.”
Corned beef wasn’t exclusive to the American Irish population, though. It dates back to 12th century Ireland as a delicacy. Since cattle were a very valuable item in trade, cows were typically only eaten when they could no longer work or provide milk. And because salt was expensive at the time, corned beef was a rare dish.
“As a matter of fact, in Ireland, only until recently they didn’t even eat corned beef,” said Mike O’Connell, president of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick of Central Iowa. “They made corned beef and exported it, but they didn’t really eat it there. At least not the general population.”
Yet corned beef and cabbage remains one of the most popular meals on St. Patrick’s Day here in America, although Courtney said he “can’t possibly imagine” why.
“Cabbage is fine in coleslaw, but other that I can usually live without it,” he laughed. “Put enough pepper on it, and it’s fine. It’s one of those things I eat once a year because I feel like I have a genetic responsibility, but other than that, no.”
“That’s the problem with Irish food,” agreed O’Connell. “It’s all kind of boring!”
For those who aren’t familiar with the making of this traditional dish, corned beef gets its name from the large grains of rock salt, called corns, used in preserving the meat. The beef is rubbed with spices and salt and left to sit in the fridge, usually for about a week. It can also be marinated with a brine of salts and seasonings, usually made up of black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg and mustard. As for the cabbage, it’s simply cut into slices and boiled, with or without a few other vegetables.
If you don’t have a week to prepare, you can find corned beef already cured and prepare it similar to a roast, which is the preferred method at Sully’s.
“On Sunday we’ll probably do two to three roasts and three or four things of cabbage,” said Boggs. “And then we’ll have it on St. Patty’s Day, in the morning and all day.”
Since Sully’s is open from 6 a.m. to midnight on St. Patrick’s Day, Boggs says they don’t have time to cook all the roasts themselves, so they get more from Hy-Vee when they run out.
And it’s likely they’ll run out, because even though many people don’t touch cabbage the other 364 days out of the year, on March 17, they’re calling ahead to make sure it’s there.
“Oh yeah, we have people calling and asking all day long if we’re serving it,” Boggs said.
Courtney said last year the Royal Mile served an estimated 150 orders of corned beef and cabbage, and they expect a similar number this year because it will be available all day.
“The corned beef and cabbage is just another Irish meal that people want on St. Patty’s Day,” said Boggs. “Because on St. Patrick’s Day, everybody’s Irish; everyone wants to eat like they do.”
Beyond the famine
Cabbage and potatoes have traditionally been staples in many Irish cuisines, mainly because they were readily available — that is, up until the Great Famine between 1845 and 1852.
In a mere six years, historians estimate more than 1 million people died of starvation and disease and another million emigrated from Ireland to escape the same fate.
Still, the potato maintained its status as Ireland’s main crop by the end of the 19th century, producing the highest per capita consumption of potatoes in the world — at a whopping four pounds a day.
Now, Americans love their potatoes, whether in the form of fries, mashed, baked or scalloped and smothered with cheese. Even with all of the flavorful, if not carb-overloaded, varieties we have today, it’s hard to imagine consuming four pounds of that a day.
But when potatoes are what you’ve got to work with, you find a lot of ways to use them.
One of Ireland’s traditional dishes is a variation of mashed potatoes most Americans probably haven’t seen or thought to try. It’s called colcannon, and it consists of mashed potatoes with kale or cabbage.
Considering how popular kale has become with foodies and health nuts in recent years, it might come as a surprise that this dish hasn’t regained widespread attention in the States. Some variations add scallions, leeks, onions and chives to the mix, and it is typically served with boiled ham or back bacon.
Back bacon was a popular item in many Irish meals. It’s a different cut of bacon than American or Canadian bacon, although most people say its texture more closely resembles that of Canadian bacon. It is sliced to include pork loin from the pig’s back and a portion of the pork belly in the same cut. Back bacon is much leaner than the American style of bacon.
For those interested in trying out this special Irish bacon, the Royal Mile will be serving it from 8 to 11 a.m. as part of its traditional Irish breakfast, which also includes eggs, beans and tomatoes. Corned beef hash and eggs, steel cut Irish oatmeal and corned beef and cabbage will also be available for breakfast.
Courtney said they had to order the back bacon from a specialty meat store in Des Moines, but they decided to offer breakfast this year because so many people asked about it last St. Patrick’s Day.
“Since the last St. Patrick’s Day, we’ve started doing a weekly breakfast on Saturday and Sunday anyway when we open early, so we’ve got the materials, and my guys know what they’re doing now,” said Courtney.
Where there’s an Irishman, there’s whiskey
Of course, we couldn’t write a story about St. Patrick’s Day without mentioning the drinks. From green beer to whiskey to car bombs — the drinks will be flowing from dusk till dawn.
For the Royal Mile, Courtney said he expects to go through a lot of Guinness.
“I know we went through six or seven kegs of Guinness last year,” he said. “It’s a lot of Guinness; you pretty much just open that tap and leave it open for most of the day. I’ll sell a lot more Guinness than I will green beer.”
Courtney only gets one keg of green beer for the occasion and says it will likely last through the whole day. Guinness is their most popular beer on any given night throughout the year, so it’s no surprise demand goes up for the Irish celebration. They’ll also be serving it upstairs at the Red Monk, a Belgian bar that doesn’t normally offer Guinness.
Courtney is also prepared to sell more than a case of whiskey and a lot of car bombs.
“I’m going to sell a lot of car bombs, a lot of Irish coffee — you know, the standards, what you’d expect,” he said. “As for me, I just drink Irish whiskey.”
The Royal Mile has one of the largest selections of whiskey in town, including six different varieties of Jameson and a dozen other brands — and it never goes to waste on St. Patrick’s Day.
“We’ll probably do at least a case of Jameson and several bottles of the other mainstream ones,” he added.
Irish whiskey came about in the 12th century and was one of the earliest distilled drinks in Europe. It was one of the most popular spirits in the United States in the early 20th century, until prohibition forced many distilleries to go out of business.
Now Ireland maintains fewer than 10 distilleries, while Scotland has more than 100 in operation. Irish whiskey has seen a major surge in popularity following the 1990s, and its growth continues today.
Whether consumed on the rocks, in a shot or with coffee, whiskey is a prominent menu item in Europe and America.
And while whiskey plays a role in the ever popular “Irish” car bombs sold in nearly every American bar celebrating St. Patrick, car bombs won’t be found at any pub in Ireland.
In fact, ordering an Irish car bomb is taboo in most British establishments, due to its reference to the car bombings that took place during “The Troubles” in Ireland. The Troubles, also known as the Northern Ireland Conflict, took place from 1968 to 1998, during which time four car bombs killed 33 people and injured hundreds more. No one was ever convicted in the attacks, and it remains a sensitive topic in the country.
The cocktail was actually invented in a saloon in Connecticut in 1979 — hence, another “Irish” tradition beginning in America.
St. Patrick’s Day is known for being a boozy holiday, but the reason for that can be traced back to the Irish and their love for social drinking.
“The Irish have always been known for being drinkers. But I think it all has to do with cabin fever and people wanting to get out,” said O’Connell of how St. Patrick’s Day likely became such a big drinking day.
The St. Patty’s Day celebrations in Ireland are typically much smaller than they are in America. O’Connell said Dublin has always had a parade, but only in recent years have the smaller towns started holding them.
“They’re kind of catching up to us as far as celebrations go,” he said.
O’Connell remembers tent parties at Sully’s back in the 1980s, but says they were nothing like they are now, as far as the number of people and the scale of the party.
“All of a sudden, something just happened,” he said. “Everybody just lets loose.”
And the winner is…
So it’s true that even boiled cabbage can draw in crowds at least one day out of the year. But then the question is: Do they come for the beer, or do they come for the food?
It depends who you ask. Courtney says it’s a little bit of both, depending on the people. And considering St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Tuesday this year, people probably won’t be ordering quite as many pints and car bombs as they would on a Friday or Saturday.
But if you ask Boggs and the crew at Sully’s, they’ll say the food is secondary to the drinking.
“No, they want their beer more,” laughs Boggs.
So there you have it. Come for the cabbage, stay for the Guinness. CV
4800 Merle Hay Road, Urbandale
3708 Beaver Ave., Des Moines
Down Under Bar and Grill
Opens at 2:30 p.m.
8350 Hickman Road, Clive
Mickey’s Irish Pub – Downtown
Opens at 6 a.m.
206 Third St., Des Moines
Mickey’s Irish Pub – Waukee
Opens at 7 a.m.
50 S.E. Laurel St., Waukee
Kathy’s Irish Pub
6705 Hickman Road, Des Moines
The Royal Mile
Opens at 8 a.m.
210 Fourth St., Des Moines
Sully’s Irish Pub
Opens at 6 a.m.
110 Grand Ave., West Des Moines
One 3- or 4-pound package of corned beef with seasoning packet
One medium to large head of cabbage
4 to 6 medium potatoes (optional)
½ package baby carrots (optional)
4 cups water
Rinse the corned beef and put it in a crockpot.
Add water and sprinkle the seasoning packet over the meat.
Cover and cook on low for 8 hours.
Cut cabbage into thin to medium wedges and scatter over the top of the meat.
Drizzle some of the broth over the cabbage, replace the lid and cook an additional hour.