Traditions are always an interesting subject to me and as we acknowledge St. Patrick’s Day it seems a good time to check out a few. Corned beef and cabbage is hardly an Irish tradition. While the Irish certainly cooked corned beef, it was actually bacon (more like ham) and cabbage that was the yearly tradition. The unpopularity of corned beef in Ireland comes from its relationship with beef in general. From early on, cattle in Ireland were not used for their meat but for their strength in the fields, their milk and the dairy products produced. In Gaelic Ireland, cows were a symbol of wealth and a sacred animal. Because of their sacred association, cows were only killed for their meat if they became too old to work or produce milk. Beef was not even a part of the diet of the majority of the population.
However, the move to America changed that for many Irish immigrants. Corned beef was made popular in New York bars at lunchtime. The bars offered a ‘free lunch’ to the Irish construction workers who were building NYC in the early part of the 20th century. The catch was that you had to buy a couple of beers or shots of whiskey to get the free lunch. This is how corned beef became known as an ‘Irish’ food.
The Irish Americans transformed St. Patrick’s Day from a religious feast day to a celebration of their heritage and homeland. The popularity of corned beef and cabbage never crossed the Atlantic to the homeland. Instead the traditional St. Patrick’s Day meal eaten in Ireland is either lamb or bacon.
While on the subject of traditions, it brings me to Irish Soda Bread. Contrary to belief, soda bread did not originate with the Irish but instead with Native Americans before European colonization. At that time soda bread was made by using pearl-ash or potash (a natural soda in wood ashes) to make the bread rise. This became the forerunner to baking soda.
In the early and mid 1800’s, Ireland adopted this soda bread which is most often identified with them. Because it required so few ingredients, soda bread was an economic choice for staple breads. Irish families generally had kitchens with open hearths instead of ovens with breads being baked on griddles or in iron pots. This resulted in a loaf that was dense, slightly sour and with a hard crust. The original recipe contained nothing more than flour, buttermilk, baking soda and salt. The buttermilk was leftover from the butter making process. Irish Soda Bread pairs well with soups, stews and meat dishes.