In this article:
- Widely considered an Irish staple, corned beef isn’t very Irish.
- The name actually refers to a variety of different kinds of preserved beef products.
- As an affordable and easy to prepare protein, it played a key role in the diets of Irish and Jewish immigrants in 19th and 20th century America.
- It’s still a popular food on breakfast tables around the world (though still not in Ireland).
You’re probably no stranger to corned beef if you’ve ever celebrated St. Patrick’s Day. This event wouldn’t be complete without beer, glittered shamrocks, and of course, corned beef and cabbage. Not only is it popular during this holiday, but it’s also a common deli meat and canned food found in grocery stores around the world.
But really, what is corned beef? It certainly doesn’t taste like corn, and there are no discernable bits of the grain in the meat. There’s actually a lot of history behind this popular meat, and how it became the food that we know today might be surprising.
1. It Has Absolutely Nothing To Do With Corn
Despite its name, corned beef actually has nothing to do with the grain. The word “corn” in corned beef actually refers to the chunks of rock salt added to the beef to preserve it. The word traces its roots to the proto-Germanic word “kurnam,” which means seed or a piece of grain.
Since the pieces of rock salt were roughly the size of grain kernels, they were eventually called salt corns. This term was used as early as the 800s, and it continued well into the 1600s when English importers reportedly used the word “corned beef” to describe Irish salted meat.
2. It Isn’t Actually Irish
While corned beef is especially famous during St. Patrick’s Day, the meat (like the holiday) doesn’t really have its origins in Ireland. The country may have a long history of raising cattle for dairy, but beef isn’t traditionally eaten in the region, especially during pre-Christian Gaelic times.
Back then, they believed that cows were sacred. Most farmers kept their cows alive for milk instead of slaughtering them. Only the richest of the rich in Ireland ate beef, while common folk stuck to pork.
It wasn’t until the 1500s that Ireland began to produce beef on a larger scale. The country had been newly conquered by the English, who started raising cattle to export back home. However, the English Parliament prohibited exporting fresh beef from Ireland in the 17th century.
To get around the fresh beef ban, landowners preserved the meat (as corned beef) to be exempted from the law. The Irish City of Cork ended up dominating global corned beef production for nearly two centuries after that.
Even then, though, the Irish didn’t eat very much corned beef because it was quite expensive. It was only after they emigrated to the United States during the Potato Famine that they started eating corned beef since it was cheaper to buy in America.
3. Guns Were Used as Can Openers
Today, we’re used to opening corned beef from cans. Whether round or rectangular, having corned beef is as easy as whipping out a can opener. Back then, though, people had to resort to using their guns to open cans. To understand why this is historically significant, it’s essential to understand why canned food is important in the first place.
During the French Revolution of the late 1700s, the revolutionary government needed a way to deliver food to its troops. However, spoilage was a huge problem by the time food arrived on the front lines.
Nicholas Appert, who was a kitchen innovator at the time, realized that boiling food for several hours in sealed glass jars allowed them to stay fresh for much longer.
The British improved on this idea by patenting an innovation using iron cans coated with tin. This made the cans resistant to rust. Overall, these lightweight cans made it much easier to store and transport food across long distances. They were also much more durable than glass jars.
Although canned food was a great invention, it wasn’t until 1858 that the first can opener was invented. For years, people resorted to using hammers and chisels to open canned goods. Some servicemen even used their guns to shoot their corned beef cans open. As a result, average citizens didn’t start eating as much corned beef until the can opener was introduced.
4. There Are Two Types of Corned Beef
There are actually two types of corned beef. One was created when the British preserved and exported Ireland’s cattle in the early 19th century. Deli corned beef, on the other hand, was a Jewish delicacy made of sliced, cured brisket with a much older history.
Typically eaten on rye bread with spicy mustard, this deli meat is traditionally cured in brine, an ancient Jewish tradition that dates back to when Hebrews started pickling meat. This was done in commemoration of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
The tradition of cured red meat continued all throughout the 1800s, which was when Jewish folk living in Germany set up delicatessens that took inspiration from the charcuterie shops in France.
Jewish immigrants took this tradition with them when they fled to America. They opened delis all over the country that served the traditional deli corned beef, which led to their popularity.
5. The Famous Corned Beef and Cabbage Dish Was the Result of Discrimination
When the Irish immigrated to America to escape the Potato Famine, they often dealt with discrimination. Incidentally, Jewish immigrants settled close to the Irish, and both lived in poor communities alongside Italian immigrants as well.
The Irish began going to Jewish delis and lunch carts, buying deli corned beef brisket from Kosher butchers since it was similar to the Irish bacon they knew.
This reinforced the idea of corned beef being an Irish food in America. For added cost efficiency, the Irish decided to cook the deli corned beef with cabbage. It was a meal that could be made in one pot, resulting in a cheap, easy to prepare, and delicious meal.
6. It’s a Popular Breakfast Staple in the Philippines
Canned corned beef may have started because of Britain, but it seems to be most popular in the Philippines where it’s eaten as a breakfast food comparable to bacon in the U.S. It is usually served fried alongside white rice and fried eggs.
Perhaps the reason Filipinos enjoy it almost on a daily basis is that their version of corned beef is made of shredded beef with a texture similar to pulled pork. Most corned beef outside of the Philippines is made of finely minced meat, which gives it quite a different taste and texture.
While corned beef isn’t as popular in America as it is in the Philippines, it is also a common breakfast option in some states. It is usually prepared and eaten as corned beef hash, a diner favorite that incorporates corned beef with diced potatoes.
So, What’s the Beef?
As these interesting facts have shown, corned beef was shaped by our collective history at different points in time. It started in Europe, made its way to the Americas, and even found a home in Southeast Asia.
Corned beef became a comfort food for discriminated immigrants, a breakfast staple for everyday folk, and a global enterprise for the Irish. It has proven to be a humble yet universal food that plays an important part in everyday living.
So the next time someone asks, “What is corned beef?” you can start by telling them that there is so much more to that little can of meat than meets the eye.