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Why the Irish Don't Eat Corned Beef

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In America, especially on St. Patrick's Day, there's a huge number of families that sit down to a meal of corned beef and cabbage. This meal has come to represent the Irish ancestry of many American families, but if you look across the pond to Ireland itself, you'll be hard-pressed to find someone there who eats the same thing. While there are some people in the Emerald Isle who enjoy an occasional bite of the salted meat, more often than not it's just not on the menu in Irish homes and restaurants. Here's why people in Ireland generally don't eat corned beef.

Its roots in oppression

Corned beef does have origins in Ireland, but they're not very nice ones. Before the English came to Ireland, most Irish families relied on pork for meat because cattle were considered to be too important to eat. The large beasts worked in the fields and provided milk, making them too valuable a commodity to slaughter just for food. Typically, only very wealthy families ate beef of any sort, and it was generally from cows that were too old to be of any use in other ways.

However, the English did love their beef, and used salting as a method of preserving it. After they had invaded most of Ireland in the late 12th century, the English took advantage of the plentiful salt and healthy cattle there to feed their cravings for corned beef. Although tens of thousands of cattle were exported from Ireland to Britain, the Irish were still too poor to afford to eat beef themselves, relying on potatoes and alternative livestock to feed themselves. 

Immigrants and corned beef

It was only when the potato famine of 1845–1849 drove many Irish people to the US that beef became part of the perceived Irish culture. Irish Americans ate beef, particularly corned beef, because it was the type of beef sold by their Jewish neighbors. The Irish and Jewish connection in early American history may seem strange at first, but given the fact that both groups were perceived as outsiders, they tended to be sympathetic to each other's culture and history. 

Eating corned beef and cabbage became a way of both celebrating their freedom from the oppression of poverty that they'd experienced in Ireland and celebrating their new life in America. This celebration made the "traditional" dish an important part of the Irish American diet, but its popularity never made it back to Ireland, even when the economy had stabilized and beef was cheap enough to eat.

Although you'll be more likely to find boiled bacon or lamb on an authentic Irish menu, the importance of corned beef like City Foods Inc/Bea's Best in the history of Ireland is still an important one, and it's a tasty reminder of why Irish Americans are so proud of their heritage.