How Irish Corned Beef Became Big Business
St. Patrick’s Day is about more than just green beer and Shamrock Shakes, of course. It’s about corned beef and cabbage, too. Even with parades canceled and many bars closed due to Covid-19, a recent survey by the National Retailers Federation and Prosper Insights & Analytics found that 49% of U.S. adults planned to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day this year, spending an estimated $5.1 million. Of consumers surveyed, 32% were planning a special dinner or celebration at home, giving a bump to sales of foods that fall into the trade group’s “traditional Irish” basket, including Irish butter, soda bread, and corned beef brisket.
Thanks to my upbringing among argumentative connoisseurs of Jewish deli products, I’ve come to hold strong opinions about corned beef—the good, the bad, the saltily sublime. But I confess I’ve always been confused by the annual appearance of the Irish version that went by the same name. A year spent in quasi-quarantine — deprived of access to real deli meat — recently inspired me to investigate. There’s a lot of St. Patrick’s Day corned beef in my supermarket’s meat section now. If I went to the supermarket and picked up one of these vacuum-sealed packages of brined brisket, boiled it up, sliced it, and slapped it between slices of rye, would I have a decent approximation of the currently unavailable-to-me experience of ordering a sandwich from Katz’s, New York’s oldest deli of When-Harry-Met-Sally fame?
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Historically, it turns out, Irish and Jewish versions of corned beef are basically the same thing. While Ireland had a thriving salted-beef export business in the 17th and 18th centuries, beef wasn’t widely eaten in Ireland itself. (The name “corned beef” comes from the “corns” or small crystals of salt used to cure the meat that became a shipboard staple for sailors in British naval fleets.) The evidence shows that corned beef and cabbage didn’t become an Irish tradition until Irish immigrants coming to America in the early 20th century found themselves living next to other recent immigrants, notably Eastern European Jews, in crowded New York City neighborhoods. Popular song titles from the time — “It’s Tough When Izzy Rosenstein Loves Genevieve Malone” (1910), “My Yiddish Colleen” (1911), and “If It Wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews” (1912) — capture the multicultural moment. Ethnic foodways also mixed. Instead of cooking up the traditional meal of boiled bacon, cabbage, and potatoes they would make for St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland, Irish immigrants noticed that corned beef, a luxury product at home, was relatively cheap at the local Jewish butcher shops, and they made a substitution that stuck.
“Traditionally, there is no difference between Irish and Jewish corned beef,” says Joel Tietolman, co-founder of Mile End, a Canadian-style Jewish delicatessen/restaurant in Brooklyn. “What is slightly different is the Irish way of eating corned beef, sliced on a plate and served with sides.”
“In my belief, there is no difference between Jewish and Irish corned beef,” says Alan Rosen, third-generation owner of Junior’s, the 70-year old Brooklyn restaurant and bakery famous for its cheesecake and a menu that offers “a melting pot of Brooklyn comfort food,” including kosher-style corned beef and pastrami. “We have corned beef and cabbage on our menu the week of St. Patrick’s Day, and it’s one of my favorite times. We cook the cabbage in the corned beef water, with the brine and all the peppercorns and stuff, and cut the meat thicker.”
Many, if not most, of the Jewish delis in America order their pre-cured corned beef brisket from United Meat and Deli, a Detroit company founded in 1983, which had sales of $40 million in 2016.
All good corned beef is made from brisket—a tough cut that turns melt-in-your-mouth tender with cures and long cooking and takes well to aggressive seasoning—preferably the flat “first cut.” (Pastrami typically uses the fat “deckle” part of the brisket; Montreal “smoked meat” uses both parts.) “Most corned beef gets a wet cure, where it’s marinated in or injected with a curing solution that includes spices, aromatics, and other stuff to help retain water weight,” says Cliff Pollard, the founder and CEO of Cream Co. Meats, an Oakland-based distributor of natural and sustainable meats. “We are using better spices and hand injecting the beef, but 99% of corned beef sold and consumed in the marketplace is coming out of a much more industrial process.”
Because the wet curing process takes time and space, most delis and restaurants don’t actually cure their corned beef in-house, but outsource at least part of the work. “You need a lot of refrigeration space for curing briskets,” says Mile End’s Tietolman. “That’s challenging for any place in New York.” Mile End’s corned beef starts with custom-cured brisket that is delivered from a processor upstate. Before serving, the meat is braised in-house with additional spices.
“It’s like Pepsi and Coke, sort of. It’s a personal preference.”
Many, if not most, of the Jewish delis in America order their pre-cured corned beef brisket from United Meat and Deli, a Detroit company founded in 1983, which had sales of $40 million in 2016. (Most Jewish-style delis don’t serve kosher meat, which can be two or three times more expensive and is a niche product.) In 2017, United Meat and its popular Sy Ginsberg corned beef brand were acquired by fellow Detroit corned beef maker E.W. Grobbel Sons, creating a $110 million-a-year corned beef empire.
Announcing the merger, Jason Grobbel, president of the company, founded in 1883, touted the brand synergies: “We’re strong in Irish American corned beef, and they’re strong in the Jewish American corned beef. Together, we cover the whole spectrum.” The company today regularly employs about 200 people, but hires up to 100 more workers in the “seasonal surge” leading up to St. Patrick’s Day, says company vice president Ryan Chapp.
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I figure if there’s anyone who can help me understand the state of Irish-Jewish corned-beef relations, it’s Chapp. “There’s a misconception that it’s corned beef and all tastes the same,” he says. Wrong. “The Irish American style traditionally uses heavier pickling spices — cloves, mustard seed, and other traditional pickling spices will predominate. The Jewish style is drier, with heavy garlic and onion-y flavors. It’s not as powerful a flavor — you can really slice it thin and pile it high on a sandwich without being overpowering.” Not so much with the heavily spiced Irish beef. “It’s two very distinct customer sets,” says Chapp. “It’s like Pepsi and Coke, sort of. It’s a personal preference.”
Between May 2018 and 2019 alone, the wholesale price of brisket rose nearly 20%.
But fans of corned beef, Irish or Jewish versions, are facing increasing competition for raw materials from the Texas barbecue crowd. The surging popularity of barbecue — and slow-smoked brisket in particular — over the past decade has dramatically driven up the price of what was traditionally a bargain cut of meat. Says Chapp: “We talk about the three Bs that have really grown with the popularity of shows on Food Network — bourbon, brisket, and barbecue.” Between May 2018 and 2019 alone, the wholesale price of brisket rose nearly 20%. Covid-related supply issues pushed prices still higher. Brisket is now the third-most-expensive cut of beef, after the rib and loin sections and high-value steaks. (Brisket sales are at their peak during summer barbecue season — Grobbel’s takes advantage of lower winter prices to stock up for St. Patrick’s day, Chapp explains.)
But look, we probably shouldn’t be eating too much of this stuff, anyway. “Dietarily, you can’t eat corned beef every day,” says Rosen, owner of Junior’s. “My grandfather who started the business actually lived to be 90. But we also had meatless Mondays back in the day.” Corned beef and pastrami are packed (deliciously) with salt and fat, and almost all brands have some level of nitrates added to promote curing. (Lesser quality meats contain more additives to pump up the flavor.) While there are ways to use less of these, says Mile End’s Tietolman, “It just doesn’t work as well if you use the natural alternatives like celery salt, or leave them out entirely. But if you’re worried about what corned beef or pastrami will do to you, worrying about whether or not it’s naturally cured shouldn’t really be your top concern.”