Never have cared for corned beef and cabbage. Or boiled potatoes. Irish cuisine…. The Irish can do many things–sing, write, tell stories (some even true), fight, be funny, blow things up–but they can’t cook. Thankfully my mother’s mother-in-law, who’d come from Austria-Hungary when she was twelve years old and could scarcely speak understandable English seven decades later, was a terrific cook. The Germans can do lots of things too, some of them scary, but their cooking never hurt anybody. So we were fed fairly well, with dishes learned from Grandma Wahl, even in the seventies, when inflation and recession–stagflation they called it–reduced America to Hamburger Helper.
I vividly remember St. Patrick’s Day as a kid. I’d always refused to wear green, figuring that anyone half-Irish didn’t have to, and some kid named Smith or Thompson or Smith-Thompson would pinch me and I’d think how just that week several Smiths or Thompsons or Smith-Thompsons had been blown up in Northern Ireland. And then, that night, my mother (a full-blooded Nelligan, and her mother a Kelly) would serve us corned beef and cabbage for dinner. I distinctly remember her saying how she could never stand corned beef and cabbage, but my father requested it. I supposed boiled potatoes and boiled cabbage was a minimalist treat to someone raised on a myriad varieties of each, from scalloped potatoes with cheese and gravy drizzled lightly across them, to sauerkraut. But I hated boiled potatoes and boiled cabbage. I love potatoes every other conceivable way–they are my favorite food–but plain boiled is kind of an insult. So our supper every St. Patrick’s Day was my least favorite meal all year, one I liked even less than fish sticks on Friday. It wasn’t until my Sioux Indian wife insisted we go out for corned beef and cabbage on my holiday (can’t we just stay home and drink whiskey and listen to Bing and the Undertones? No?)–that I learned to barely tolerate boiled cabbage. Apparently her home town of Milwaukee (her parents had been born on the reservation, but she was born in a pleasant suburb of Milwaukee), where there haven’t been any Irish since Spencer Tracy moved to Hollywood, is just awash in green and corned beef and cabbage every St. Patrick’s Day. All the bars serve it up, free. Anything that sells beer, I guess. And as for me and corned beef, well, it was better than Spam, I guess, but not as good as pastrami. I would rather have a kielbasa (we used to get incredible kielbasa from a Polish butcher in Flint a zillion years ago), or a hamburger, or carnitas, or nothing. I remember feigning an upset stomach once or twice on Saint Patrick’s Day, and sneaking out later to raid the fridge. Faith and begorrah, I did.
And now I avoid, if at all possible, eating corned beef and cabbage every March 17. Just like I avoid going out to see people who aren’t even slightly Irish sing happy Irish songs and smile happy Irish smiles and talk in incredibly bad fake brogues. It’s a kelly green minstrel show all over Los Angeles every Saint Patrick’s Day. It’s embarrassing. Hell, the very same people who go into conniption fits about cultural appropriation every Columbus Day or Cinco de Mayo or ethnic holiday of your choice become a greenface Stepin O’Fetchit on March 17. Top o’ the morning to ya! and green beer. Any excuse to get shitfaced, I guess. You know those Micks, always shitfaced. Which a lot of them are, actually. But at least they’re not smiling that stupid happy Irish smile. Well, unless they are drunk. Faith and begorrah. The hell with it. I’m staying home and watching Barry Fitzgerald movies.
But back to corned beef, here’s a bit of history of the dish, and the part it played in the Potato Famine.
The Celtic grazing lands of Ireland had been used to pasture cows for centuries. The British colonized the Irish, transforming much of their countryside into an extended grazing land to raise cattle for a hungry consumer market at home. The British taste for beef had a devastating impact on the impoverished and disenfranchised people of Ireland. Pushed off the best pasture land and forced to farm smaller plots of marginal land, the Irish turned to the potato, a crop that could be grown abundantly in less favorable soil. Eventually, cows took over much of Ireland, leaving the native population virtually dependent on the potato for survival.— Jeremy Rifkin, Beyond Beef
Which is as good an excuse as any, I suppose, to avoid a meal of corned beef and cabbage. Wrap the fact that I simply don’t care for corned beef and cabbage in tragic history and moral outrage, as if eating corned beef and cabbage is some sort of genocidal act. You read it here first.
But it’s not. I just don’t like corned beef and cabbage, and this is a blog, and people get carried away in blogs, and say overwrought and ridiculous things, which then prove embarrassing at cocktail parties when people bring it up. Eventually someone catches you with a big steaming plate of corned beef and cabbage, and you splutter between mouthfuls.
I will drink the whiskey, though. No argument at all.