CTB helped Cornellians celebrate St. Patrick's Day by selling green bagels at CTB on March 17, 2021. (Hannah Rosenberg/Sun Photography Editor)

March 17, 2021

Corned Beef Contains No Corn, and Other Things You Didn’t Know About Irish Food

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Your life changes the day you realize that “sweetmeats” are actually pastries, “mincemeat” can refer to dried fruit cooked into a pie and ordering a plate of “sweetbreads” will get you a tasty calf pancreas. Misnomers like these just make you trust the world a little bit less. So, you can imagine how distraught I was to learn that corned beef has literally nothing to do with the yellow vegetable that grows on stalks. Well … almost nothing. 

“Corn” as we know it in Modern English has a rich etymology dating back to the Proto-Germanic kurnam, meaning “small seed.” This creates an obvious connection to the corn that we eat grilled with butter; what are kernels if not hundreds of small seeds lined up in a row? But Old English used the word corn much how we use “grain” today — that is to say, corn referred to the overarching category of small, granular cereals rather than to any specific plant. Nevertheless, corn soon extended to describe many foods beyond just cereal grains. Keep in mind that even in Modern English, we often apply the word “grain” to non-edibles as in the case of “grains of sand.”

Corned beef is made by brining a brisket in a salt solution with other optional spices for up to a week, and boiling it until completely cooked through and tender. This salt brine is crucial to understanding just how corned beef got its name. As far back as the 1560s, “to corn” was a verb meaning “to preserve and season with grains (‘corns’) of salt.” Despite the absence of any corn as we know it, corned beef has steadfastly hung onto its (etymological) history with pride — much like the Irish people. 

Ireland, and its people, have undergone intense cultural erasure by the hand of the British government, but many modern day movements are attempting to combat the continued deterioration of Irish culture. Seaghan Mac an tSionnaigh of The Irish Times describes the Irish as, “A people who for generations had suffered genocide, famine and sexual crime as consequences of the first two waves of colonisation …” The story of Irish oppression is spelled out in Ireland’s culinary history. 

 Food is often used as a political tool with many facets. In some cases, a group can use its diets to assert their autonomy and make a statement against unjust political systems. A modern example of this includes the vegan and vegetarian movement, in which individuals may express their opposition to climate change or animal cruelty through the foods they consume. At other times, a political enemy may intentionally starve a population to weaken and demoralize. In the case of the Irish Potato Famine, however, the British government negatively impacted Irish foodways in much subtler ways. 

The jury is still out on whether Britain “ignored the plight of Ireland’s poor out of malice, or if their collective inaction and inadequate response could be attributed to incompetence.” The fact remains, however, that Britain’s negligence — purposeful or not — contributed to the death of over a million Irish individuals between 1846 and 1851. 

When crops began showing signs of illness in 1845, the British government initially gave some relief by repealing the “Corn Laws,” or grain tariffs. Economically, this repeal helped slightly by making items like bread more affordable, but was far from sufficient in the face of impending famine. Despite clear suffering, the British government continued exporting goods like livestock, peas, honey and fish from Ireland, exacerbating the existing shortage. The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, despite being an ally to the British Prime Minister, wrote to him claiming that, “Ireland had been sacrificed to the London corn-dealers … no distress would have occurred if the exportation of Irish grain had been prohibited.” Various relief efforts were half-heartedly implemented by the British government in response, though many promising programs failed because they were “politically … unacceptable.”

Britain’s calculated actions, which valued political advantage over human lives, represents the broader tendency throughout history to erase Irish civilization through cultural genocide. This is especially prevalent in modern perceptions of Irish food, which often view the cuisine as “far too quotidian to be valued, especially when compared to the … exoticism associated with French haute cuisine.” In recent years, however, Irish food has been earning some of the recognition it deserves. The push towards vindicating Irish cuisine focuses on giving cultural autonomy back to Ireland; it will no longer be compared to French or British culture, but rather treated as a completely separate entity deserving of respect.

Despite not resembling other traditionally prestigious cuisines, Irish culinary traditions are worthy of respect, study and honor. Food conveys culture, and every culture is inherently worth preserving because it tells the story of a people. Who cares if cabbage and potatoes can get a bit bland? 

Amelia Clute is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She currently serves as one of the dining editors on The Sun’s editorial board. She can be reached at aclute@cornellsun.com.