A funny holiday is observed on March 17th in Suffolk County, Massachusetts (which includes Boston). Green ink was used to sign this holiday into law, and lots of Irish people and their friends celebrate it by drinking copious amounts of beer and whiskey.
I’m referring, of course, to Evacuation Day, the important historical holiday marking a day during the revolutionary war when the British redcoats retreated from Boston. To some Irish, saying goodbye to a Brit is legitimate cause for celebration, but native Massholes like me have known since the second half of 1st grade that Evacuation Day is really just a clever ruse to give the day off to public workers who would otherwise have called in sick with a pre-hangover. That’s because, not coincidentally, St. Patrick’s Day-which was denied public holiday status-also falls on March 17.
Across the great divide in Butte, MT, cavernous bars ring hollow most of the year like the Sambadrome in Rio, only to fill on St. Paddy’s Day with overjoyed masses cheering and crying and hugging, in the best case scenario. And if you can push your way to the bar, don’t forget to order a plate of corned beef and cabbage.
You don’t have to be Irish to enjoy the official food of my home town’s unofficial public holiday. In fact, back in Ireland the dish is mainly prepared for export and tourists. But in the U.S., corned beef has become a genuine part of American culture, dating back, by many accounts, to the times when Irish and Jewish people shared the low-rent districts of certain east coast cities. They ate a lot of corned beef, though some called it brisket or smoked meat. I learned at a young age that unlike the Jews, including some of my relatives, the Irish don’t freak out if you put mayo on your corned beef.
Brining meat in salt water is an age-old preservation method. The word “corned” refers to the large grains, or “corns,” of salt that were traditionally used. Corned beef and cabbage, which often contains potatoes, onions, and carrots as well, was a dish you could make at the end of winter in the days before refrigeration. Today, it’s a meal that makes sense for local hoarders trying to make the most of the dregs of last year’s harvest.
Some recipes claim to produce corned beef and cabbage without the brining step. I tried one such – the highest recommended hit for “corn beef and cabbage” on allrecipes.com. I was instructed to put everything in a crock pot and wait. Due to the awesomeness of the crock pot, such meals can often turn out fine. But cabbage and crock pot are a dangerous pair. Nine hours later, my kitchen smelled like it had been sprayed with mustard gas. The cabbage-like mush was bitter and sulfurous, with no redeeming flavor or texture whatsoever.
While beef is most often the recipient of the corning treatment, the process also works on other meats – the tougher the better. Most of the meat I eat is wild game, the strong taste of which is completely tamed by a good corning brine. I mention this because while I appreciate the taste of game, many people don’t, and corning your wild meat might be a good way to sneak it into otherwise unappreciative mouths. And for those who are into wild game, corned venison is a treasure.
The corned wild game recipe I use, which follows, comes from an excellent book called Dressing and Cooking Wild Game.
2-3 lbs brisket, flank, or shoulder roast, no thicker than one inch.
2 quarts spring or distilled water
1 cup canning and pickling salt (or, if you want the typical pink color that preservatives give to the meat, use ½ cup pickling salt and ½ cup tenderizing salt)
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons mixed pickling spices
2 bay leaves
8 whole black peppercorns
1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced
Roll the meat with kitchen string if you want to be fancy, and place the meat in a glass or ceramic bowl. Combine the remaining ingredients in a saucepan and heat to a boil. Remove heat, allow the brine to cool, and pour it over the meat. Cover and refrigerate 4-5 days, checking to ensure the meat is fully submerged, and weight it down if it isn’t. Drain and rinse with cold water.
To prepare a meal of corned meat and cabbage, bring a pot of water with a chunk of corned meat to a boil. Change the water, and boil again. Reduce heat and simmer until the meat is tender, which takes 3-5 hours for most cuts. Then, and only then, add carrots, potatoes, and onions if you wish. Simmer for half an hour, and then add cabbage, sliced or cut into wedges. Half an hour later, it’s ready.
It’s a good idea to prepare more meat and potatoes than what you think you will eat for lunch and dinner on March 17, in order to leave leftover meat for breakfast hash the following morning.
Cook leftover potatoes in the pan with safflower oil. Add corned beef and chopped onions. Toss leftover corned meat with fried potatoes, on low heat. Take your time, and let the corned beef develop a crisp. Meanwhile, make scrambled eggs in a separate pan, erring on the side of undercooked. Toss it all together, seasoned with salt and pepper, and serve with coffee. It will probably chase away your post-Evacuation Day blues.
Of course, you might still call in sick. And in Boston, rest assured they will. Especially this year, with the public holiday falling on a Thursday.
Corned beef may not be any more Irish than the Irish Curse, but it remains a celebration of Irish culture nonetheless, just like St. Patrick’s Day. And whether you call it St. Paddy’s Day, Evacuation Day, or, as we did in high school, Ejaculation Day, it’s a great day to eat corned meat and cabbage.