The word corned comes from an Old Germanic word, kurnam, which means a small kernel of something. Corned beef is beef that has been cured by packing it in barrels with coarse grains (kernels) of salt, which dried the meat out, preserving it from spoilage. The Oxford English Dictionary says that the word corned was around as early as 888 AD. Curing meat with salt is much older; there is evidence that the Greeks were dry salt curing meat by 900 BC.
Corned beef was a major industry for the Irish port cities of Cork and Dublin by sometime in the 17th century, and it continued to be their chief export until 1825. First shipped in barrels, the Irish began canning their corned beef after the process was discovered in the late 18th century. French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, who famously said that an army travels on its stomach, offered a cash prize to whomever developed a reliable method of food preservation. Nicholas Appert, who invented the process for sealing foods into bottles, won that prize. The Englishman Peter Durand took the process one step further and developed the process for sealing food into unbreakable tin containers. During the Napoleonic wars the British army literally lived on cans of corned beef from Cork.
But just because the Irish were producing corned beef didn’t mean they were eating it. Most Irish, if they owned a cow at all, raised it for its dairy products. Cows were sources of butter, cheese and cream and were only slaughtered and eaten when they were no longer good for milking. Sheep, too, were not often eaten, but were raised as a source of wool. Only pigs were raised for consumption. Except for those in heavily touristed areas, Irish pubs and restaurants are more likely to offer a stew of cabbage, leeks and bacon than corned beef and cabbage.
So why do we Americans associate corned beef with the Irish? One theory is that Irish immigrants in New York City found that the corned beef sold in Jewish delis was a less expensive substitute to bacon. Corned beef was a favorite, inexpensive food of the working middle class during the nineteenth century, when refrigeration was not yet widely available.
Go ahead and have your corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day. Wash it down with a green beer, if you want to. And celebrate a meal that is distinctly American.