Why ‘corned’ beef? For thousands of years people have cured and preserved beef by covering it with salt the size of kernels of corn, and the name corned beef refers back to a time when the word ‘corn; was applied to anything granular.
The Irish traded for salt as far back as the Middle Ages, writes Mark Kurlanksy in Salt–A World History, and their salted beef was the “meticulously boned and salted forerunner of what today is known as Irish corned beef.” Prized by Europeans because it did not spoil, corned beef from Ireland was also adopted as a food provision by the British navy, which meant it traveled far!
In Ireland, corned beef was a dish originally associated with Easter Sunday–at least for those sufficiently affluent to procure any sort of beef at all. Killed before winter, the beef would have been salted and then savored after the Lenten fast. Author-Chef Darina Allen, founder of the Ballymaloe Cookery School in Shanagarry, County Cork, and proponent of The Slow Food Movement, notes that corned beef has long been associated with Cork City, which was “the provisioning port for boats before they crossed the Atlantic.” From the late 17th-century to early in the 19th, beef corning was Cork City’s primary industry.
Corned beef helps free King from Demon of Gluttony!
Corned beef in Ireland also has literary-mythical roots. Aislinge Meic Con Glinne (The Vision of MacConglinne) is a late 11th-century parody in which the hero, Anier MacConglinne, wins the patronage of Cathal, King of Munster, by reciting a fabulous food-laden vision that frees the king from a demon of gluttony that has been residing (tapeworm-like!) in his throat. At least for the carnivores among us, corned beef spit-roasted on an open fire is described in mouth-watering detail:
“And he called for juicy old bacon and tender corned-beef and full-fleshed wether, and honey in the comb and English salt on a beautiful polished dish of white silver, along with four perfectly straight white hazel spits to support the joints. The viands which he enumerated were procured for him, and he fixed unspeakable, huge pieces on the spits. Then, putting a linen apron about him below and placing a flat linen cap on the crown of his head, he lighted a…fire of ash-wood, without smoke, without fume, without sparks. He stuck a spit into each of the portions, and as quick was he about the spits and fire as a hind about her first fawn, or as a roe, or a swallow, or a bare spring wind in the flank of March. He rubbed the honey and the salt into one piece after another. And big as the pieces were that were before the fire, there dropped not to the ground out of these four pieces as much as would quench a spark of a candle; but what there was of relish in them went into their very centre.” [Excerpted from an In Parentheses publication translated by Kuno Meyer, © 2001]
New York feast vs. Boston feast–Yet another rivalry?
Food maven and former New York Daily News restaurant critic Arthur Schwartz writes in his “opinionated history” of a cookbook, New York City Food, that Irish immigrants in the U.S. were not sufficiently well off to to treat themselves to what he identifies as the precursor to corned beef and cabbage–Irish bacon and greens–until the late 1800s.
“How bacon and greens evolved into Corned Beef and Cabbage is anybody’s guess,” Schwartz writes. “Some surmise that the Irish adopted the meat of their German, Jewish, or even German-Jewish neighbors, or WASP employers and turned it into a dish to help celebrate their Saint Patrick’s Day, an essentially New York City-Irish Holiday that is now part of all Irish-American culture.”
Saint Patrick’s Day essentially a New York City holiday? We’d like to hear you shout that out to commuters riding the Green-Line ‘T’ on March 17, Mr. Schwartz! We’d also like to remind you that another common name for corned beef and cabbage is “New England Boiled Dinner”–with no mention of New York!
Saint Patrick’s Day at Jules
Finding ourselves riding the Green Line on Saint Patrick’s Day this year, we were lucky enough to catch a leprechaun counting gold coins under our seat. “Okay, okay,” he grumbled, when we demanded that he magically grant us three wishes in exchange for his release. “What d’you want?”
Because were feeling a little peckish, “Corned Beef and Cabbage from Jules” was our knee-jerk reply. “And if you could throw in a frosted Shamrock Cookie, that would be great!” Alas, we forgot to wish for speedy delivery (which Jules readily supplies), so the leprechaun told us that we’d have to stop by Jules’ kitchen to make our wishes come true. And so we did, arriving–as if by magic–in the nick of time.
First, we checked in with Jules’ Executive Chef Albert Rosado, who has impressive corned-beef credentials. While cooking for Harry and Leona (a.k.a. “The Queen of Mean”) Helmsley at the Helmsley Hotels in the 1980s, Albert would moonlight at McFadden’s Restaurant and Saloon at 42nd Street and Second Avenue, not far from Times Square.
“This was the gathering place for the Grand Marshal and other bigwigs involved in New York City’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade,” Albert reminisced. “Some three- or four-thousand people came in and out of McFadden’s around about St. Patrick’s Day, and over the course of three days we prepared something like five- to six-hundred pounds of corned beef, as well as many pounds of Irish stew.”
What about green beer? we wondered.
“We didn’t dye the beer ourselves,” Albert laughed, “but McFadden’s did serve green beer for St. Patrick’s Day. Purveyors supplied McFaddon’s with that.”
Longtime Jules Line Cook Jeff Ginyard also knows his corned beef. Because Jules brines its own beef brisket, Saint Patrick’s Day preparations must begin a full day in advance, he explained, adding that two muscles comprise a beef brisket. “We use the leaner ‘first cut’ for corned beef sandwiches. The fattier and more succulent ‘second cut’ is used for boiled dinners.”
We asked why the corned beef was cooking in its own pot, apart from the vegetables. “So the vegetables don’t get mushy we prepare them separately,” Jeff explained. “But we want them to pick up the corned-beef flavor, so we remove some water from the pot where the brisket is cooking, and we boil the cabbage–and the other vegetables–in that. The corned beef stock, by the way, is flavored with mustard seed–and the brine is seasoned with peppercorns, bay leaves, and allspice.”
Corned beef + cabbage + shamrock cookie from Jules…
The leprechaun granted our wishes…our three dreams came true!
Creative Commons: Liebig Tinned Corned Beef, detail from Bosch’s ‘Allegory of Gluttony and Lust’
EarthShare: Green Beer
Liz Muir: All other photos