Every year, my family celebrates our Irish heritage on St. Patrick’s Day by donning green cothing with Celtic prints, or in recent years, Armstrong tartan kilts. We gather for a family feast of Corned beef, cabbage, and piles of mashed potatoes; listen to The Fenians and other Celtic music; and toast with glasses of Guiness. Although our revelry may not resemble the pious commemmorations of St. Patrick that take place on the same day Ireland, it is a tradition worth celebrating, rooted in Irish history, the immigrant experience, and the cultural melange that is America.
Beef was a traditionally English food, not Irish, but under British rule, salted beef — dubbed “corned beef” due to the large size of the salt crystals that formed on the meat — became an important Irish export for hundreds of years. Sadly British rule also brought oppressive laws that kept the Irish in poverty, so their own salted beef was too expensive for most Irish families.
In the mid 1800s, when droves of Irish emmigrated to America during the potato famine, many found themselves considerably more well-off than they had been in Ireland. Corned beef, the food of the wealthy back home, became a regular part of their diet and a symbol of their newfound prosperity. The spices used were quite different from those in Ireland though; they were heavily influenced by Jewish immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe.
The corned beef you’ll find at our table on St. Patrick’s Day, while not purely Irish, is steeped in tradition. It is connected to the political and economic history of Ireland as well as the American Dream as experienced by immigrants displaced by Ireland’s tremendous famine. Like the immigrants themselves, it has been shaped by America’s cultural melting pot. What better way could there be to celebrate our immigrant heritage?
Now I find myself revising the tradition again, this time because of my latex-fruit syndrome. Most of the corned beef that you find in the grocery store has mustard seed, which cross-reacts with latex, or unidentified “spices” or “natural flavorings,” which might. I had never considered curing my own corned beef, but now that I have, I’m sorry I didn’t try it sooner!
The recipe you will find below owes its existence primarily to Elise Bauer’s recipe from Simply Recipes. I have left out the mustard and red pepper flakes due to my allergies, substituted in fresh ginger for ground, and added horseradish, but other than that, it’s quite similar. Be sure to toast and crush the spices just before making the brine. Doing it too far in advance, or using pre-ground spices simply doesn’t compare. For more great information about homemade corned beef, read Elise’s recipe.
To learn more about the history of corned beef, read “Is Corned Beef Really Irish?” from Smithsonian Magazine.
- If you grind your ginger fresh, then you know everything that is in it. I like to use ginger paste for convenience, but you must read the label carefully as ginger is not the only ingredient. Be sure it doesn’t contain oils or other ingredients that may cross-react with latex. If you can’t get fresh and don’t have an allergen-free ginger paste available, you can substitute dried ground ginger into the recipe.
- I also like to use prepared horseradish, since I use it so frequently. Again, if you prepare your own, you know exactly what is in it. If you buy horseradish, be sure to read the label carefully. Sometimes soy or other oil is added.
- It is unusual, but occasionally, I have found beef that has unidentified “flavorings” added. When cooking for someone with allergies, be sure to read the labels on everything, even the meat you buy.
- Of course, since potatoes cross-react with latex, don’t serve them as your side dish, but cabbage and some wheat-free soda bread make for a pretty great feast!