While the process of preserving meat with salt is ancient, food historians tell us corned beef
(preserving beef with "corns" or large grains of salt) originated in Medieval Europe. The Oxford
English Dictionary traces the first use of the word corn, meaning "small hard particle, a grain, as
of sand or salt," in print to 888. The term "corned beef" dates to 1621. Corned Beef
Hash&Corned Beef & Cabbage were inevitable interations.
"Emphasizing its long history in the Irish diet, Regina Sexton...points out that a similar product is
mentioned in the 11th-century Irish text Aislingemeic Con Glinne many wonderful provisions,
pieces of every palatable food...full without fault, perpetual joints of corned beef'. She adds that
corned beef has a particular regional association with Cork City. From the late 17th century until
1825, the beef-curing industry was the biggest and most important asset to the city. In this period
Cork exported vast quantities of cured beef to Britain, Europe, America, Newfoundland, and the
W. Indies. During the Napoleonic wars the British army was supplied principally with corned
beef which was cured in and exported from the port of Cork."
---Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson, [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (page
Corned beef was very popular in colonial America because it was an economical and effective
way to preserve meat. The following corning directions are from The Virginia House-Wife by
Mary Randolph, 1824, pages 22-23:
"To corn beef in hot weather
Take a piece of thin brisket or plate, cut out the ribs nicely, rub it on both sides well with two
large spoonsful of pounded salt-petre; pour on it a gill of molasses and a quart of salt; rub them
both in; put it in a vessel just large enough to hold it, but not tight, for the bloody brine must run
off as it makes, or the meat will spoil. Let it be well covered top, bottom, and sides, with the
molasses and salt. In four days you may boil it, tied up in a cloth, with the salt, &c. about it:
when done, take the skin off nicely, and serve it up. If you have an ice-house or refrigerator, it
will be best to keep it there.--A fillet or breast of veal, and a leg or rack of mutton, are excellent
done in the same way."
Corned beef was the primary ingredient of New England Boiled Dinners.
What about corned beef hash?
According to The Encyclopedia of North American Eating and Drinking Traditions..., Kathlyn
Gay [ABC-CLIO:Santa Barbara] 1996 (p. 70) "The word 'hash' (fried odds-and-ends dish) came
into English in the mid-17th century from the old French word 'hacher', meaning to chop. Corned
beef hash...probably has its origins in being a palatable combination of leftovers. In the 19th
century, restaurants serving inexpensive meals--precursors to today's diners--became known as
"hash houses." By the early 1900s, corned beef hash was a common menu item in these places."
Mrs. Lincoln's 1884 hash recipe used either corned meat or roast beef.
Corned beef in tins:
The history of canning is generally traced to Nicolas Appert in 1795, who rose to Napoleon's
challenge to invent a method to preserve food for military distribution. Donkin& Hall (UK) is
credited with manufacturing the first tinned meats (& soups, vegetables) distributed to the British
Navy in 1813.
"Retorting of tins was known in Britain in the 1830s...Tins were produced in a variety of sizes,
ranging from the smallest (two pound) to enourmous ones weighing nearly seventeen
pounds...Opening these tins presented quite a challenge. Most early tins were sold as military
supplies, and until the 1840s the instructions on tins called form the use of a hammer and chisel.
The earliest domestic openers were made in the 1860s and were called Bull's Head tin openers,
as they had a cast-iron handle shaped into a bull's head and tails and were sold with tins of bully
beef...In 1866 a special can with its own key opener was introduced."
---Pickled, Potted and Canned: How the Art and Science of Food Preserving Changed the
World, Sue Shepard [Simon &Schuster:New York] 2001 (p. 245-6)
"British soldiers fighting in the Boer War had been issued with the first composite emergency
ration packs containing two tins to be used only in extremity. One had held four ounces of beef
concentrate and the other five ounces of cocoa paste. The great mainstay of the British army in
both world wars was, however, corned beef, which was found to be ideal for soldiers on the
move, who could eat it cold straight from the can. The Tommies called it "bully beef" a name
derived from the French bouilli (boiled) beef, which had been fed to the French army in the
Franco-Prussian War of 1870."
---Pickled, Potted and Canned, (p. 254)
NOTE: This book contains an excellent chapter devoted to the history of canning (p. 226-255).
Your librarian can help you find a copy.
According to our food history sources (most of these are published in the U.S.), the tapered
trapezoidal corned beef can we purchase today is attributed to Arthur A. Libby, who acquired a
U.S. patent for this item in 1875. "1875 Arthur A. Libby and William J. Wilson developed the
tapered can for corned beef in Chicago."
--- Can Central History Timeline
Why the unique design of the corned beef can? There are several theories. Most of them support
the theory of convenience."Whyare corned beef tins such peculiar shapes? THEY CONTINUE
to be made in their traditional tapered rectangular shape because it is easier to extract the
contents in one piece, thus allowing the block of corned beef to be sliced. That's also why the
cans also employ a key that enables the user separate one end of the body of the can: there's no
seam to prevent the contents slipping out."
--- The Guardian.
Corned beef--Jewish or Irish cuisine?
Some people wonder about the shared culinary/cultural heritage of the Irish and Jewish peoples
when it comes to corned beef. The practice of curing meat for preservation purposes certainly
dates back to ancient times. The use of salt was adopted/adapted by many peoples and cultures,
and was widely used during the Middle Ages. Evidence suggests that both Irish and Jewish
cooks were making corned (salt) beef independently, long before they met in New York.
"Corned beef comes in two versions: The Jewish special on rye, or the traditional Irish boiled
dinner, aka New England boiled dinner. Tonight should be the big night for the Irish version."
---Boiled dinner, The Boston Globe, March 15, 1990 (p.3)
"But why corned beef? Was St. Patrick, the 5th-century apostle credited with converting the Irish
to Christianity, a corned-beef- and-cabbage kind of guy? Did the Irish embrace him and his
culinary repertoire and ultimately take the whole meal to America? And how can corned beef be
so Irish if it's on the sandwich menu of every self-respecting Jewish deli in America? And, while
we're at it, how is beef "corned" anyway? It's about time to set the corned-beef record straight.
For starters, eating corned beef on St. Patrick's Day is purely American, which makes sense since
celebrating St. Patrick's Day is more American than Irish. In fact, corned beef has always been
associated with Cork City. According to Darina Allen, between the late 1680s and 1825, beef-
corning was the city's most important industry. In that period, corned beef from Cork wound up
in England and Continental Europe and as far away as Newfoundland and the West Indies.
...Myrtle Allen, author of "Myrtle Allen's Cooking at Ballmaloe House" (Stewart, Tabori&
Chang, 1990), further contends that corned beef is "no more Irish than roast chicken." And that's
true enough: For millennia, in order to keep food through the winters, people all around the globe
have preserved meat in brine or dry salt rubs. We see the technique in everything from beef jerky
and Smithfield hams to preserved Tunisian lamb to various Chinese exotica. The Jewish deli
sandwich is just one more exponent of this tradition, in its Eastern European form."
---How Irish Is Corned Beef? Very -- and Very American Too, Carole Sugarman, The
Washington Post, February 28, 1996 (p. E01)
"The Jewish deli started when lone male immigrants were forced to buy kosher meals from
Jewish neighbors...A deli could be a store that sold cooked foods or a restaurant. It specialized
either in meats or in chesse and fish, never both. It served corned beef (which the British call salt
beef), tongue, and pastrami..."
---The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey From Samarkand to New York, Claudia Roden
[Knopf:New York] 1996 (p. 80)
NOTE: This book has a wealth of information on the topic of Jewish food in America.
If you want to read more on the history of salting ask your librarian to help you find this book:
Pickled, Potted and Canned, Sue Shepard
The Salt Archive--fabulous source for salt history in all disciplines
Corned beef & cabbage on St. Patrick's Day:
There is some controversy about whether "Corned Beef & Cabbage, " often eaten in America on
St. Patrick's Day is a traditional Irish meal. According to Malachi McCormick's Irish County
Cooking and "The Troubles That Irish Food Has Seen," New York Times, March 14, 1990 (page
C8) corned beef & cabbage is a purely American tradition. Colcannon (boiled new potatoes
mixed with boiled white cabbage, boiled leeks or boiled onions to which is added butter, milk
and wild garlic) is more likely to be considered Ireland's national dish.
Brid Mahon's Land of Milk and Honey: The Story of Traditional Irish Food and Drink contains
these notes about corned beef: "[in the 19th century] Corned beef was a festive dish." (p. 8)
"While Irish beef has always been noted for its flavor, corned beef was equally relished. Boiled
and served with green cabbage and floury potatoes, it was considered an epicurean dish, to be
eaten at Hallowe'en, at Christmas, on St. Patrick's Day, at weddings and at wakes, a traidtion that
was carried to the New World by the emigrants of the 18th and 19th centuries. To this day,
corned beef and cabbage are served on St. Patrick's Day and at Thanksgiving in parts of North
America. Bacon, corned beef, sausages and pudding are all mentioned in The Vision of Mac
Conlinne, the 12th-century tale that also describes the condiments served with meats." (p. 57)
"Easter Sunday...the most important festival of the Christian year...Spring lamb, veal and chicken
were part of the festive fare but the meal most enjoyed consisted of corned beef, cabbage and
floury potatoes. When millions fled the country during and after the catastrophric years of the
Great Famine they carried with the memory of this festive dish, a tradition that survives in
America to this day, though the meal is more often than not served on St. Patrick's Day. (p. 157)