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Dining on corned beef and cabbage for St. Pat’s

By Sean P. Johnson

St. Patrick’s Day brings out the Irish in everyone.

For one day, at least.

Every March 17, many of us claim a bit of the legend of St. Patrick by donning green, sharing a beverage or two and celebrating with what has become the traditional meal to mark the day: corned beef and cabbage.

With more than 34 million people in the US claiming Irish ancestry—seven times the population of Ireland—it’s no wonder local restaurateurs get an early start prepping for that days most demanded dish.

“It’s seems that more people are coming out every year,” says Rhoda Steffel, general manager of Mark’s East Side in Appleton. “We’ve been doing it on St. Pat’s for more than 20 years and it really has become a fun day. Besides, corned beef is so tasty.”

And popular.

In anticipation of St. Patrick’s day, Mark’s has ordered more than 1,500 pounds of corned beef and nearly 800 pounds of cabbage to meet diner’s demands, Steffel says. They start serving on March 10th, stop for the weekend and start up bright and early on the 17th through the following day, she says.

“It’s a slow cooking process where we start overnight and constantly adjust it until we get it just right,” she says.

What makes the dish so popular?

Certainly, folks seem to love the taste, says Jay VanHandel, the bar manager for Greene’s Pour House in Neenah, which expects to see good crowds throughout the weekend and through Monday. He suspects the dish’s limited availability is what drives the demand.

“It’s one of those unique foods that is only widely available once a year,” VanHandel says. “It’s one of those holidays people keep to just one day a year.”

They’ve seen the same trend at The Woods in Waupaca, where owner Don Johnson wasn’t certain whether he would serve the weekend before, or just on St. Patrick’s Day.

“It just seems to be more of a thing on that day,” he says. “But, I will be cooking for it ahead of time and last year we did the whole weekend.”

At Mark’s East Side, Steffel says they have tried in the past to serve the dish at different times of year, particularly when it’s halfway to St. Patrick’s Day, but it was not a big draw.

“I just don’t think it’s the same when it’s not on St. Patrick’s Day,” she says. “Like a Friday fish fry, there is just something special about it being that one time or one day.”

There is a bit of irony that corned beef and cabbage has become the signature dish of St. Patrick’s Day. It’s not a traditional dish in Ireland. Raising cattle and curing beef date back to the 1600s in Ireland, but as a British colony, the industry was controlled by the British and much of the beef was shipped back to the British Isles. Beef was too expensive for the average Irish family, which would have more likely eaten pork with potatoes.

Yet, as the Irish immigrated to the U.S., they found the opposite. It was pork that was expensive, while beef was cheap and readily available, as was nutrient dense cabbage.

The two were paired up and corned beef and cabbage quickly became synonymous with being Irish and St. Parick’s Day, at least in the U.S.

While the tradition may be “Americanized,” those involved take it no less seriously. Family recipes are an important part of the culinary tradition and are closely guarded.

At Spat’s Food and Spirits in Appleton, the recipe used by Julie and Bill Neubert predates their ownership. It was handed down to them by the previous owner, and given it’s popularity, they have continued to use it, while also adding some family touches of their own to the overall meal.

“We’ve introduced an Irish stew using Guinness beer and a corned beef and cabbage dinner where we top the potatoes with the stew that has become really popular,” Bill Neubert says. “My mother also comes into town for that week just to make her Irish torte.”

At Spat’s, the prep work is already well underway for the nearly 2,800 pounds of corned been and 3,000 pounds of cabbage they expect to serve. There are also 800 pounds of potatoes and 300 pounds of carrots to peel and chop.

They will start serving up corned beef and cabbage dinners the week before and will keep the dish on the menu through the 18th.

Of course, they do get a bit of practice. Spat’s has found success serving corned beef and cabbage outside of the St. Pat’s holiday. They now serve it four times a year as a lead up.

“We know folks love it,” Neubert says. “We get nearly four to five times more business during those weeks.”

—FC

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