St. Patrick’s Day & Corned Beef

As a grandson of Ireland, the entirety of my youth was steeped in Ireland: history, customs, music, poetry, and food. Though born here, I am born from that Fenian soil and know no other. And of course this all comes out, in full force and effect, on March 17th – St. Patrick’s Day. In my early childhood, the other 364 days of the year was a sort of Irish boot camp and there are several memories that I hold from this time, one of which I will share here: My mother’s ideal way for me to honor our past was to enroll me (along with all of my girl cousins) in Irish Step Dancing school during summer one year. I found myself each Friday night, aged 7, in a room above a bar listening to jigs and reels, the air filled with stale beer, whiskey, and cigarettes. Despite the open windows, the unmoving June air acted as a wall preventing fresh air in or stale air out and the cigarette smoke banked down as we were admonished by the instructor — a man incredibly short on patience, and long on explosive temper — to, “Pay attention!” And although my body may have been in this sweaty, stale room, listening to Irish jigs, enduring a sort of corporal penance for some yet-to-be-committed mortal or venial sin, my mind was running the streets playing stickball and kickball.

To my mother’s enduring sadness, I was not to be the next Lord of the Dance, but St. Patrick’s Day would come and be it parade, or Tommy Makem’s Irish Pavilion on W. 57th Street, or stuffing ourselves into my uncle Nelson’s small apartment to watch The Quiet Man, the day’s festivities would always conclude with corned beef, cabbage, and potatoes.

There are many stories associated with St. Patrick the man: Sadly, much of the history was poorly recorded, and what we honor today is as much legend as it is fact. What is known is that he was a British citizen of the Roman empire born into a Christian religious family during the 4th Century AD, was captured by invading Irish clans, and returned to Ireland where he remained in captivity for approximately 6 years. Patrick returned to England and, believing that he was called by God to Christianize Ireland, returned to proselytize and convert the island to Christianity; he did so by incorporating existing pagan worship into Christianity and melding the former into the latter — hence, the circle in the center of the Celtic cross is a representation of the sun god; the three-leaf clover used as instruction for the Holy Trinity — three leaves on one stem as three entities comprising one God. March 17th is recognized as the day of his death in 461 AD, and in Ireland it is both a religious and non-religious holiday, but until the 1970s bars were closed for the holiday, and it wasn’t until the mid-18th Century that the first St. Patrick’s Day was held — not in Ireland, but in New York City.

Salt is the great preservative and large, granular salt the size of a kernel of wheat (or corn, as the British say) used in preserving is what inspired corned beef’s name. And as the Irish hit New York City en masse in the 19th Century, they settled with their own version of soaking and salting – in the old 1st Ward of the Lower East Side. Beef had been a long-forgotten luxury but it was available here in certain quantities and the process of taking inferior cuts of meat, salting and soaking to tenderize the tough cuts was started. This evolved into using pickling spices as well as salt and curing in barrels. Meat was still a luxury to the poor, so it was reserved for special occasions — the least of which was St Patrick’s Day.

As with all holidays, St. Patrick’s Day is about coming together, a day of celebration and pride. It is in this spirit that we offer you our Fairway barrel-style corned beef — it is prime beef, includes the point and flat cut, is purely barrel cured, (not injected, as most supermarket prepackaged choice and select cut brands will be) and will be trimmed to your liking by any of our butchers at our meat counters. Other supermarkets ask you to file in to a prepackaged case, take what’s on the shelf, which is packed in some plastic wrapper without care, injected with brine (which boils out and leaves you with but the memory of meat) – theirs is an impersonal and cold style of purchasing, which leaves you confused and unsure. We are old world, hand cut, wrapped in paper; c’mon talk to the butcher, he is here to help you; ask for a floor manager, tell them what you want, they’ll be delighted to help.

If you are in the Fairway Paramus store, ask for me (I’m the General Manager there), and we’ll talk about all things Irish. And from my family and all of my Fenian ancestors to yours, we wish you a Happy St. Patrick’s Day. Enjoy my wife Mary Burke’s Irish Soda Bread recipe, and to use the old expression: Remember that there are no strangers here, just friends we haven’t met — Cead Mile Failte Romhat, (Gaelic for 100,000 welcomes).

TELL US: What are your St. Patrick’s Day stories?

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