KANSAS CITY, Mo. – My family has always eaten corned beef to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day as my mother and father’s families include Scotch, Irish, English and German bloodlines. But today’s corned beef is not my mother’s corned beef.
Corned beef is the type of meat you either like or don’t like. There’s no middle ground. Apparently it is enjoyed by many Americans including myself. In the US, corned beef has long been a traditional St. Patrick’s Day entrée, but it is also enjoyed throughout the year.
Mom would make it every St. Patrick’s Day. She would boil it for hours in her trusty old Dutch oven in water with cabbage, onions, carrots and potatoes. Unfortunately, she always cooked her meat and poultry way too long and I remember her corned beef brisket back in the late 1950s and early 1960s as being stringy, marbled with fat, dry, salty, tough and gamey tasting. By the time she was done cooking this dish, the vegetables were unrecognizable. Thank God for yellow mustard and horseradish, which made it far more palatable than it would have been otherwise.
Growing up in a predominantly Irish neighborhood of Chicago and then a south suburb of Chicago with many Irish families, I assumed only Irish folks ate corned beef because all of my friends’ families served it, too. It turns out that corned beef, which has been around for centuries, is not an Irish-centric food—it has been a staple in many cultures, including most of Europe plus the Middle East, wrote Craig Morris, Deputy Administrator of the AMS Livestock, Poultry and Seed Program, in a blog back in March 2013. He explained corned beef got its name from the “corns”, or large grains of salt used to cure the meat. In the 17th century, Ireland became known for exporting corned beef after British land owners brought cattle into Ireland, Morris said. But the Irish people couldn’t afford to eat it themselves. Their traditional dishes used corned pork instead, and they relied heavily on nutrient-dense potatoes to survive, Morris wrote.
When many Irish immigrants entered the US in the 18th century, they also brought along the idea of beef as a luxury. So, when they became aware that salted-beef brisket was cheap in the US, they quickly replaced their traditional “Irish bacon” with corned beef.
This year, as has been the case for the past 18 years, my wife bought three lean corned-beef rounds and slowly cooked them for eight hours at a low temperature in beer inside an electric slow-cooker. This year’s St. Patrick’s Day corned beef was the best I’ve ever eaten, maybe because it was cooked in nine bottles of a very unusual beer (three bottles per batch) that included spices, particularly coriander. I wasn’t wild about the taste of this beer as a beverage (too bitter for me), but it sure made the meat tastier.
Another reason this year’s meat tasted extraordinarily good was the sweet glaze she always applies while finishing cooking in the oven. Once cooked for eight hours in the slow-cooker, she mixes brown sugar, dry mustard and dry sherry to make the topical glaze, slathers it on top of the meat and broils the rounds until the glaze is somewhat thickened.
Although the elders of my wife’s and my family are no longer with us, we continue this tasty tradition while listening to Irish music on old CDs with our kids and grandchild. And this year I had a surprise bump under the table, which hadn’t happened in almost 40 years. It wasn’t the spirit of Duffy looking for corned beef, it was our granddaughter trying to scare grandpa—which she did. But for a second, her bump into my knee brought back some very pleasant memories of St. Patrick’s Days past.