Corned Beef and Cabbage and Something about Snakes

Last week I got to do something fabulous. I took a quick girls’ trip to Florida with my sister, cousin, and aunt. And I did not take my kids or my husband. Not that I don’t like traveling with them. They’re really fun people. But this was a special trip to celebrate my sister’s birthday by hanging out on the beach and watching some baseball.

We went to Jupiter, Florida, spring training home of the St. Louis Cardinals (and the Florida Marlins, but nobody cares), where we attended three games, played on the beach, explored a lighthouse with the most amusing tour guide I’ve ever encountered (but that’s another post), witnessed a rehabilitated sea turtle get released into the wild, ate a lot of cheesecake, and had, generally, a really great time.

Okay, so it wasn’t strictly a girls’ trip. Of course we had to take Steve the traveling sock monkey. He’s a huge fan!

And even though I didn’t take him with me, I could not have enjoyed such a trip without the efforts of my wonderful husband who rearranged his busy work schedule to hold down the fort for a few days, getting the kids to and from school, managing homework, keeping up with all the activities, and cooking dinner.

It’s this last part I may appreciate the most, because while I was gone, he cooked corned beef and cabbage. It’s a dish a lot of Americans will be preparing tomorrow in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, even in spite of the fact that it falls this year on a Friday in Lent and at least the dedicated Catholics among us should probably stick to fish.

I confess that not being particularly Irish, nor even the tiniest bit Catholic, I’ve never really known a great deal about Saint Patrick. I just know that if you don’t wear something green on March 17th, someone somewhere will feel compelled to pinch you and that if you cook corned beef and cabbage in my house while I’m home (or possibly in the same state), your fate will be much worse than that.

It turns out history doesn’t yield up a whole lot of reliable information about St. Patrick, either. We know that he was born in Britain sometime in the last half of the 5th century, that he arrived in Ireland as a slave at age sixteen (possibly kidnapped by pirates), made it back home six years later, and had a vision calling him back to Ireland as a missionary, where he proceeded to do all kinds of legendary things like preaching with shamrocks and driving out snakes. That’s where his story gets a little muddy, and may (as some historians suggest) get combined with another missionary known as Palladius who was in Ireland in the early half of the 5th century.

saint patrick
Though we don’t know for sure, it seems likely enough St. Patrick may have used the shamrock to illustrate the concept of the Trinity, since Ireland actually has shamrocks. Unlike snakes, which Ireland never did have. Not even green ones.[Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
But the lack of concrete details sure doesn’t stop us all from gettin’ our green on, even though the color more historically associated with this saint is actually blue. Historical stuff does tend to yellow with age, and Chicago goes to all that trouble to turn their river disgusting green, so I guess I’ll allow it.

The tradition that I can’t tolerate, however, is corned beef and cabbage. And frankly, I shouldn’t have to. Because Saint Patrick is as likely to have eaten corned beef as he is to have driven all of the snakes from Ireland (which, according to fossil records, never existed there in the first place). In fact, historically, Irishmen in general never ate much beef, the meaty part of their diet tending to be primarily salted pork.

If we really want to celebrate St. Patrick and all things Irish, then it’s bacon we should be eating. Now that I could get behind.

It wasn’t until the great influx of Irish immigrants into America in the 19th century that corned beef became a St. Patrick’s thing at all, and that’s only because the meaty part of the American diet tended to be more beefy. Relatively cheap beef brisket was readily available to Irish Americans who settled in large numbers alongside the kosher delis of their Jewish neighbors, and so they convinced themselves, their descendants, and green beer-guzzling Americans from all walks of life that corned beef and cabbage is a good, Irish-y idea.

But it’s not.

I’m not a total party pooper. I will wear this ridiculous hat while not eating corned beef and cabbage.

Still, Americans will fire up their crock pots, stink up their houses, and line up in droves to eat corned beef and cabbage tomorrow. And I’m sure those lines will include a lot of Irish and/or green beer-guzzling American Catholics throughout the country where many local dioceses (though far from all) have granted dispensations to their parishioners who wish to partake.  

I can honestly say there’s not enough green beer in the world to make me want to participate in the tradition, and because I married a very smart and thoughtful man, I don’t have to. He had his corned beef last week. By the time I got back from my trip, the house had thoroughly aired out. Had it not, I’d not have hesitated to head back to the beach.

20 thoughts on “Corned Beef and Cabbage and Something about Snakes

  1. Nan

    Thanks for another fun, informative post–from an Irish Catholic who does not mind the smell of cabbage. Just forget the corned beef and bring on the bacon…

    1. I am not a fan of either the corned beef or the cabbage, but of course it’s the cabbage that’s particularly offensive to my sense of smell. I would not begrudge anyone else, though (unless they live with me). Enjoy the day!

  2. Well Sarah you know how I am. I love corned beef and cabbage. However, my doctors have given me strict order to leave the corned beef alone and only eat the cabbage. That’s ok because I love cabbage. The Irish do eat cabbage, but it’s more likely to be fixed with lamb. By the way, I could see Ireland from my home in Scotland. It definitely is green.

    1. Yes it is! It’s on my list of places to visit one of these days. The blue comes from the original national seal and is still used in the background of many of Ireland’s symbols. It was also adopted by the Order of St. Patrick. Enjoy your cabbage!

  3. Bring one eighth Irish and 100% Catholic, I didn’t realize it was St Patrick’s Day until I read your posting! Our bishops threw out the meatless Fridays a few years ago (everyone was eating fish which is four times the price of meat!) So we shall be having ground meat patties with a potato and GREEN bean salad. I’m tempted to throw in bits of grated carrot to appease the seven eighths side of me which is ORANGE!

    1. Green beans sound okay. When I first read your comment, I thought you’d written that you were going to eat green meat patties. Not sure even a 1/8 Irishman should try to pull that off.

  4. I didn’t even know corned beef and cabbage was a thing. I like cabbage, but haven’t eaten corned beef since I was a child. Does that mean that you cook corned beef? I’ve only ever eaten it cold, usually in sandwiches. I’m a vegetarian now, so it doesn’t really matter either way.

    1. I’m pretty sure it’s only a big thing in the US. American Catholics, especially those of Irish decent, get especially worked up about it when St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Friday and every diocese has to decide whether it’s okay to eat. But it’s also taken hold in the wider population as St. Patrick’s Day here has become a party day, similar in some ways to Mardi Gras. I did not grow up eating it. My husband (also not Catholic or overwhelmingly Irish) did. He cooks it in a crockpot with potatoes and cabbage. I think that’s pretty common. Most is served hot this time of year, but it’s also a common cold sandwich meat.

    1. Thanks! I mostly can’t stand the smell of cooked cabbage, but corned beef also strikes me as a waste of an otherwise perfectly lovely meat. I suppose I’m in the minority around here, but it’s nice to know there are others of us out there. 🙂

  5. You really do learn something new every day, Sarah. I’d no idea Irish Americans ate corned beef on Paddy’s Day (side note: not ever, NEVER EVER EVER, ‘Patty’s Day’. The Irish-led ‘Paddy not Patty’ movement has become a major force online in recent years). Bacon and cabbage is the stereotypical Irish dish – to the extent it’s pretty much a national joke, however tasty. We would never eat cabbage with lamb though, I’m sorry to inform Mr Spradley. Lamb goes with cauliflower and green beans. Cabbage goes with bacon. It’s the law.

    1. As Mr. Spradley is significantly less Irish than you, Tara, you need not be sorry. Lamb with cauliflower and green beans sounds delicious. And don’t worry, I would never be so stupid as to refer to St. Patty’s Day. Thanks for looking out for me!

      1. I’d never be so uncouth as to assume you’d say the ‘P’ word, Sarah, you know better! But I am rather unashamedly using your platform in an attempt to dissuade other people from uttering the saintly equivalent of nails scraping across a blackboard 😉

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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