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How Corned Beef and Cabbage Became a Holiday Staple

Posted by Craig Morris, Deputy Administrator of the AMS Livestock, Poultry and Seed Program in Food and Nutrition
Feb 21, 2017
Infographic highlighting the history, anatomy and market of corned beef & cabbage.
Infographic highlighting the history, anatomy and market of corned beef & cabbage. Click to enlarge image.

For most of us in the U.S., corned beef and cabbage is synonymous with St. Patrick’s Day. But its association with the holiday isn’t an Irish tradition.  It is a uniquely American tradition, a blending of both history and opportunity.

Corned beef has been around for centuries and has been a staple in many cultures, including most of Europe and the Middle East.  It gets its name from the “corns” or large grains of salt used to cure the meat. Ireland became known for exporting corned beef in the 17th century after British land owners brought cattle into Ireland.  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.

In the 18th century, when large numbers of Irish immigrants came to the U.S., they brought with them the idea of beef as a luxury.  So when they found salted beef brisket was cheap in the States, they were quick to replace their traditional “Irish bacon.”  Nutrient-dense cabbage was also readily available and affordable, and a dish combining the two became a staple for working classes across the country.

As St. Patrick’s day evolved into a celebration of Irish heritage and nationality for Irish-Americans, corned beef and cabbage became a holiday tradition for consumers across the nation.

According to USDA’s Market News, part of the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), St. Patrick’s Day was the the single largest promotional period for beef brisket cuts in 2012.   Prices were 21% lower, on average, than they were during the rest of the year.  A full third of supermarket ads promoting corned beef were in the Northeast, with the Southeast (primarily Florida) coming in second.

St. Patrick’s Day is also the biggest holiday for fresh, green cabbage consumption in the U.S., with New Year’s Day running a distant second.  In 2012, St. Patrick’s Day supermarket ads had cabbage for 47% less than the average price for the rest of the year.  By comparison, at New Year’s, the price was only 22% less than the yearly average.

Whether you’re one of the 34.5 million Americans who claim Irish ancestry or not, as you celebrate the holiday this weekend, you may be honoring two traditions from those early Irish immigrants: corned beef and cabbage... and good, affordable ingredients.

For more pricing information, visit the USDA Market News portal.   We have been providing market information on cotton, dairy, livestock and grains, poultry and eggs, and fruits and vegetables for over 90 years. By visiting USDA Market News online you can view hundreds of pre-made commodity reports or create a custom report to see only the information you need.

Category/Topic: Food and Nutrition

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Bob Fitzhenry
Mar 18, 2013

Apparently, in the new Culturally Transformed USDA, blatantly racist blogs about the Irish are still OK. Why not throw in a story about a drunken bar fight while you're at it.

Russell Cross
Mar 27, 2013

Great story. Very well done.

Jan 01, 2014

Apparently you are and idiot because this is history not racism. Great read!!

Regina Hitchcock
Mar 16, 2014

Bob, what are you going on about? This article is historically correct and though it may have been changed since you read it, there are no racist comments on it at all. Calling the Irish poor? We often came here with nothing more than the shirts on our backs and an extra pair of socks tucked into our pockets. Great article!

Eric Baumholder
Nov 04, 2016

Potatoes are *not* nutrient-dense. They're fiber and starch and not much more, unless you eat the 'peelings', too. Cabbage has more micronutrients, but still not enough to be nutrient-dense. Neither of these are anywhere close to being as nutrient-dense as beef or pork, the comparison is scientifically vacuous.

Edward Teach
Dec 29, 2016

Eric, are fiber and starch nutrients? Hmmmm.