Ah… St Paddy’s Day, along with daylight savings time and baseball it reminds me that spring is almost here. And with spring comes another season of food… fresh food. So what’s the deal with corned beef and cabbage (and potatoes)? How did this become the meal of choice for this holiday?
Well lets begin with eating locally grown food…which was, of course, the only way we ate for the vast majority of our existence on this planet. In northern climates (before refrigeration) potatoes and cabbage were probably all that was left in the cellar come March. Certainly no fresh fruit or green vegetables made it through the winter… perhaps some onions and other root vegetables but the local grocer didn’t sell Mexican mangos. More likely than not, the human root cellar was almost empty as well. No not the cellar where we store dried humans… the cellar where you store your energy for the winter… your fat,or my fat, as the case may be. When the food really started to get short in February our bodies began to slowly consume all that fat we packed on in the fall… perhaps on Thanksgiving. Well of course not in Ireland, but trust me every high latitude culture pigs out in the fall.
This leads to the next question; how did the potato get to Ireland? Potatoes are a New World food so pre-Columbian Europe had never experienced a French fry (or a marinara sauce, as tomatoes came from the Americas as well, but that’s another post). It took quite a while for the potato to catch on but, by the end of the 18th century it had become the staple crop of Ireland. For a white vegetable it is very high in vitamins, “C” in particular which helps with the problem of “scurvy pirates”…arrrhhh. More importantly it yields many times the calories per acre of any other crop. It is possible to survive on little more than potatoes and milk. For how shall we say… cultural reasons there were quite a few more new mouths to feed in Ireland than in its wealthier neighbor/conqueror England and potatoes fit the bill. It was potatoes success, in fact, that later led to tragedy. Potatoes were so successful that most of Ireland stopped cultivating almost anything else and when the blight destroyed crops for several seasons in a row, millions starved.
Are they good for me or not? Get to the point. Well… if you are starving or plan on starving anytime in the near future potatoes are without a question the crop of choice. Potatoes are very high in starch, and the body loves to turn starch into sugar, and sugar into fat. Glycemic index is measure of how quickly sugar gets into the blood stream… steamed potatoes get a 65, a Mars bar 64, a baked potato 85. Higher is not better. I’m not a nutritionist and won’t get into the details but the short version is this: when there is more sugar in your blood than you need at any given time, the body turns it into fat to store it for the future. And, since it is unlikely in this day and age that you will ever run out of food, you will never have to go into your cellar (fat) for survival. In the Garden of Eden as soon as you get even remotely hungry you eat a piece of fruit (no not that one) and problem solved. In Ireland you eat as many potatoes as you can today because there might be none tomorrow.
But it is St Paddy’s and I am going to eat corned beef and cabbage. I’m just going to eat more corned beef and cabbage and less potatoes… way less potatoes. And if you are blessed with a metabolism that allows you to eat whatever you want… it must be the luck of the Irish. Here’s a link to a bunch of ways to cook this meal: http://www.cooks.com/rec/search/0,1-0,baked_corned_beef_brisket,FF.html My recipe: boil beef, add potatoes then carrots then cabbage. Eat when all are done.
One final thought… potatoes only taste good with a healthy helping of fat. And not healthy fats… no potato and avocado recipes; potatoes and olive oil… not so much. Now saturated fats… bacon, butter, cheese, sour cream… that spud is loaded.