Food For Thought: Irish food?

Our twin-centric lifestyle makes getting out the door in the morning a bit of a struggle. I’m lucky if I remember to toast a bagel and fill my coffee mug, much less pack lunch. As such, I often find myself pushing through mobs of the unwashed masses (read: high school students) on my way to the school cafeteria. I don’t want to sound like I’m disparaging the work of our school cooks, I actually enjoy both the lunches, and my time wandering through the commons, observing teenagers in a more-natural habitat. It’s a bit like going to the zoo.

In fact, it was the school lunch I enjoyed on Thursday – a Reuben on a pretzel roll, and potato wedges – that motivated this post.

I didn’t take a picture of lunch, so here’s a generic picture of a Reuben.

To be clear, lunch was pretty good. Everything was cooked well, and tasted like it should,  which is pretty impressive for a place that potentially serves 1600 meals in the span of about an hour.

What I found interesting, was the menu was created as their “St. Patrick’s Day” meal. The plate, constructed as a celebration of Irish tradition, included the following ingredients: roasted red potatoes, sauerkraut, a pretzel roll, Swiss cheese, thousand-island dressing, and corned beef.

Let’s break this down.

To kick it off, the Reuben was invented in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1920, by a guy named – wait for it – Reuben. Reuben was a Jewish, Lithuanian-American hotel owner, who supposedly created the iconic sandwich by putting all of his favorite foods together between a couple slices of rye. It was also, quite possibly, invented by a German-American deli owner in New York city. Such is the nature of culinary history: it’s almost always contested. So, not Irish.

Sauerkraut is obviously thought of as a German food, though pickled cabbage has been used throughout history, by cultures the world over. The recorded history of sauerkraut includes it having been used to prevent scurvy on Dutch sailing voyages, and the Chinese having used shredded cabbage preserved in rice wine as a staple food for workers on the Great Wall. Also, not Irish.

Pretzels (twisted, baked bread) can be found anywhere wheat is grown, so quite literally the entire world, though various mainland European countries have laid claim to having developed it’s current incarnation. Not Ireland, though, as far as I know.

Swiss cheese is, well, Swiss… except not really. The fact that it’s called “Swiss cheese”, which is a uniquely North American moniker for cheese that resembles cheese from Switzerland, means that it’s clearly not Swiss. And certainly not Irish.

Thousand-Island dressing is “fancy sauce” (originally mayo, ketchup, relish, Worcestershire sauce and chopped hardboiled eggs) from New York. Definitely not Irish.

Potatoes are certainly associated, with Ireland, especially during that time when they – you know – didn’t have any. The potato itself, though, was originally appropriated by Europeans when Spanish conquistadors brought them back from Peru in the early 1500’s. By the latter part of the same century, potatoes had been introduced to Ireland, though they were slow to spread to the rest of Europe. The red potato in particular is thought to be uniquely native to the Americas. Not Ireland.

Which brings us to the most potentially Irish aspect of the menu, the corned beef. Corned beef is so named for the “corns” of salt used to preserve meat, not for maize (aka. “corn”), which we all know originated in the Americas. Corned beef is a singular entry in a long history of salt-cured meats, a process traditionally used to impart flavor, break down the meat proteins (make it more edible), and for preservation purposes. It’s impossible to trace the history of salt-cured beef to a single point of origin, though for our purposes, “Irish corned beef” is uniquely British. Developed as a canned product during the Industrial revolution, it was considered to be “nonperishable”, and as such became a staple of international, ship-borne trade including as part of the Triangle-Trade), as well as a mainstay of the British middle class. “Irish” corned beef was produced in Irish coastal cities, like Cork. These manufacturing centers were largely populated by unskilled laborers who couldn’t afford indulgences, like the corned beef they produced, preferring rather to rely on true Irish meals, such as bacon and cabbage. The potato blight and ensuing famine, which was partially precipitated by the loss of agricultural land to grazing space for beef cows, motivated mass emigration to America, where the Irish were received as second-class citizens. Impoverished Irish-Americans found themselves reinventing their favorite dishes, replacing the bacon in “bacon and cabbage” with corned beef, which was relatively inexpensive in major American cities, given it’s association with Jewish immigrants and the working poor. So, also not distinctly Irish.

But, in the end, that’s ok. Much like how corned beef is an Irish-American mainstay, St. Patrick’s Day is an Irish-American celebration, so it’s actually appropriate to eat it today, as long as you remember two things: 1 – St. Paddy’s day is a celebration Irish-American heritage, and the oppression and hardship that’s marred the history of the Irish as a subjugated group. And 2 – March 17th was actually the day St. Patrick died, and was historically observed as a day of reverence, temperance, and thankfulness… so keep that in mind as you’re getting blackout drunk on Guinness and Jameson.

Back to the Reuben. It’s probably not the best choice to mark the celebration of an Irish saint, but considering the holiday – like the food – is based on the merging of immigrant cultures, I’d say that it’s not only appropriate, but we’re not going far enough. I’d actually suggest going for something traditional, but just a bit more interesting, like my Korean-inspired Reuben recipe that I developed a while ago. Trust me, it’s delicious.


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