The Curious History of Corned Beef and St. Patrick's Day

by Rebecca Cormack


Beneath the delectable and mouth-watering indulgence of a corned beef and cabbage feast is a surprising Jewish history. The tradition of this meal on St. Patrick’s Day would not be without the relationship between Irish and Jewish immigrants in 19th century America.


In 1762, the first St. Patrick’s Day parade occurred not in Ireland but in New York City. The following era marked an explosion of immigrants from Ireland to the U.S., especially after The Great Potato Famine of 1845. Irish immigrants often settled in urban areas, New York City being a popular destination. There, they lived in close proximity to Jewish immigrants, most of whom were from Eastern and Central Europe. As Irish immigrants earned more money, they were able to afford meat products. Kosher butchers sold their brisket cut to their Irish neighbors. Irish immigrants also frequented Jewish New York delis, which popularized sandwiches such as the Reuben, featuring Jewish corned beef on rye bread.


Corned beef was once an expensive delicacy in Ireland. Historically, Irish people did not eat their cattle’s meat, believing cows were sacred and a symbol of wealth. The richest Irish were an exception, sacrificing their cattle and salting their beef for preservation.

After the British conquered Ireland in the 16th century, the cow became a commodity. The Cattle Acts of 1663 and 1667 prohibited the export of live cattle to England, lowering the cost of meat for salted beef production in Ireland. During this same time period, the price of salt in Ireland was about 1/10 that of England’s. The British imported high-quality Irish salt at a very low price. The term “corned beef” was coined by the British at around this same time, comparing the size of the salt crystals to corn kernels. Despite the low cost, the majority of Irish people still struggled to afford corned beef in their own country, as they were oppressed by British rule. It was not until after the Irish immigrated to America, where they were exposed to Jewish brisket cut meat, that they were able to indulge in the salty, tender, and kosher nosh.


Perhaps it was just a coincidence, or perhaps Irish and Jewish immigrant populations settled next to each other in American cities because they had much in common. Both groups endured centuries of oppression in their native homes. Neither group was able to fully escape discrimination in America. Irish and Jewish immigrants shared an appreciation for song and dance, collaborating with each other in Vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley. For example, in 1912, Jean Schwartz composed the music for the song “If It Wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews,” while William Jerome (whose real name was William Flannery) wrote the song’s lyrics.


Listen to a rendition performed by Mick Maloney, a traditional Irish musician, folklorist, and musical historian:




All in all, Jewish and Irish immigrants have significantly contributed to American culture throughout history. Thanks to the amicable relationship between Irish and Jewish Americans, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the U.S. are incomplete without a corned beef and cabbage feast.

Cait's Soda Bread

Before you knew her as the Federation's Senior Director or Communications and Marketing, Cait Gladow was raised as a Muldoon in a staunchly Irish family. Here's her family recipe for soda bread.


2.5 cups all-purpose flour
1.5 cups whole wheat flour
1 t. kosher salt
1 t. baking powder
1 t. baking soda
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 t. cardamom
1/4 cup butter
1 egg
1 3/4 cups buttermilk


Cait's great-grandmother, Elizabeth Donnelly, brought this recipe to Brooklyn when she left Ireland, and it was adapted from flavors she experienced from her new neighbors in New York - including the addition of cardamom!


Combine the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl, and cut in butter until crumbley. Beat eggs and buttermilk together and then add to dry mixture. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth (roughly 3-5 minutes). Divide the dough into two round loaves and place on a parchment-paper lined baking sheet several inches apart. Using a sharp knife, cut a 1/2" deep "x" into each loaf, and bake at 375 degrees for 35-40 minutes. Slainte!

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