Jews, Irish Share Corned Beef Tradition By Rabbi Judy Chessin

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As we inaugurate Temple Beth Or’s First Corned Beef Festival, let’s ponder the age-old question:  is corned beef Irish or Jewish?

To be sure, corned beef and cabbage are considered the traditional fare of St. Paddy’s Day. But this was not always the case! Pork had previously been the preferred menu item for the day. In Ireland, cattle were used for dairy production and were only slaughtered for food if necessary. Pigs were bred for meat.  

But when the Irish immigrated in great numbers (in the mid 19thcentury) to America, they faced discrimination and poverty. They moved into the slums and tenements alongside other immigrants such as the Jews and Italians. It was at the Jewish delis and lunch carts that the Irish experienced Jewish corned beef and noted its similarity to the far more expensive Irish bacon they loved.

Jewish immigrants had perfected the brisket cut of meat as their trademark. Brisket was an economical cut of meat which comes from the lower chest of cattle. Since it does not touch the sciatic nerve or blood vessels, it is a kosher cut of meat. But the brisket is a tougher cut of meat filled with fat and cartilage. Thus the salting (to remove the blood, a requirement for Jewish dietary laws) and slow-cooking process transformed the brisket into an extremely tender and flavorful delicacy!

The Irish took the Jewish beef brisket and salt-cured it. The term “corned” beef comes from the large grained rock salt called “corns” used in the salting process. Cooking the beef with cabbage was also a cost efficiency. The entire meal could be cooked up in one pot making the dish cheap, easy and delicious!

There are flavoring differences in two cultural recipes. The Irish brine is more aromatic with spices such as bay leave and clove. Garlicky brine gives a more distinctly Jewish flavor. In any event, corned beef is beloved, and claimed, by both cultures.

Corned beef might not be the Jews’ only renowned collaboration with the Irish. In the early 20thcentury, Irish and Jewish immigrants collaborated on music for Tin Pan Alley, touching on themes dear to the hearts of immigrants in the crowded tenements of New York City. There, Irish composer William Jerome (originally Flannery) and Jean Schwartz wrote “If it wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews” about their shared experiences. They wrote:


“… I often sit and think what would this country be
If we hadn’t men like Rosenstein and Hughes.
You’d surely have a kingdom there’d be no democracy.
If it wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews:
Chorus: What would this great Yankee nation
Really, really ever do
If it wasn’t for a Levy
A Monahan or Donahue?
Where would we get our policemen?
Why Uncle Sam would have the blues.
Without the Pats and Isadores
You’d have no big department stores.
If it wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews.

No matter what your culture we hope to see you at our amazing Corned Beef Festival on Saturday, March 10.  Details here.

Shalom, Rabbi Judy Chessin

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