Is anything more American than St. Patrick’s Day?

Even the Irish themselves didn’t begin really celebrating–really celebrating–St. Patrick’s Day until about 15 years ago. Beginning with a one-day observance that has since grown into a nationwide festival replete with parades, art exhibits, and–in at least one case–a nuns vs. priests beachside volleyball game, the annual saint’s day has evolved into a national showcase of all things Irish, casting considerable doubt upon the sanctity of our own observances here in the United States. That includes our annual obsession with corned beef and cabbage.

That’s not to say corned beef and cabbage isn’t Irish, but it’s safer to say it’s hardly Ireland’s national dish. Colcannon, an ancient dish of boiled cabbage, potatoes, wild garlic, and leeks mixed with milk and butter can probably lay better claim to that title. Nor does it undercut the dish’s popularity. Corned beef and cabbage has enjoyed status as a celebratory dish for many of Ireland’s major holidays for centuries, but its association with St. Patrick’s Day seems purely an American one.

Corned beef and cabbage is a simple dish with only one real secret for success: simmer–don’t boil–the meat and you’ll come out golden. Or green, as the case may be. Since few of us actually corn the meat ourselves anymore (“corn” refers to the salt used to preserve the meat, an English rather than Irish reference, at that) chances are pretty good you’re going to find your corned beef packaged in a plastic bag, complete with a little spice packet, ready and waiting to go.

That little spice packet contains ingredients that are traditionally included in the corning process. Chances are, the brisket you’ve purchased hasn’t been corned in the traditional manner–it’s probably just heavily salted–so those spices are there to supply the flavor that’s been left out as a result. You could also supply your own flavorings: allspice, mace, mustard seeds, bay leaves, whole black pepper corns, and garlic are all good choices.

Corned Beef and Cabbage 

3-4 pound beef brisket, rinsed
1-2 medium onions, quartered
1 large green cabbage

1.  Place the brisket, onions, and spices in a pot a little larger than the ingredients, and cover–just cover–with cold water.

2.  Bring the water to a boil and then immediately reduce to a gentle simmer. Cover the pot, and then leave to continue simmering for about three hours, or until the brisket is fork-tender

3.  Core and cut the cabbage into quarters or eighths, and then tuck the cabbage chunks in amongst the beef and onions. Continue to simmer for 15 minutes (or longer, if you like your cabbage very tender).

What do you drink with corned beef and cabbage?

Think before you order, because the political slopes are slippery, indeed. Some might reach for a mug of Budweiser dyed green, while others might prefer a classic Black and Tan–that eye-catching mix of ale and stout–but its association with Ireland is tenuous at best and many Irish would prefer there be no association at all.

“The Black and Tans, of course, were a paramilitary force used by the British to terrorize Ireland during the War of Independence in 1920 and 1921,” noted the newspaper Irish Echo in a story about the drink a few years ago. “Recruited for their violence from the prisons of England, they were allowed to shoot any civilian they deemed suspicious.”

Who wants to celebrate that? Instead, consider Irish ale–a real one, such as Smithwick’s Ale or O’Hara’s Red Ale–or look for a perfectly nice American version such as Samuel Adams Irish Red Ale or Dick’s Irish Style Ale. Down a pint of ale with your corned beef and we’ll just pretend that request for a green-dyed Bud never happened.