Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Corned Beef, or not

You know, every year I think I'm going to write this amazing post about St. Patrick's Day.  It would involve me finding delicious corned beef somewhere within the city limits of Amsterdam.  To a Dutchman, corned beef looks like this:
I'm not even sure what that product is made out of, but it is certainly not what I expect corned beef to look like.  Niek even enjoyed eating it on his sandwiches until I took him to a Jewish deli in Indianapolis and forever after made him sad that we live so far away from things like rye chips and kosher pickles.  [As an aside, I found a Jewish deli in Amsterdam and am planning a trip soon.] Corned beef and cabbage is not a dish I have often eaten, but my mom made it a handful of times for St. Patrick's day when I was a kid.  Every year I figure, why not celebrate a completely historically inaccurate, over-the-top holiday with a little meat and cabbage?  Why not, indeed.
I've taken slight issue with the holiday ever since I wrote my first history paper in college on the biography of St. Patrick.  Up until that point I had no idea that the real St. Patrick went by the name Patricius and considered himself a Roman on the fringes of the Empire.  All that driving the snakes out of Ireland lore had to wait for the hagiographers High Middle Ages.  That suddenly sounds like a cool job to me, a hagiographer.  I'm just imagining some monk closeted away in a monastery trying to figure out how he could make the lives of the saints more interesting.  Creative writing is a challenge no matter what century you live in.  Anyway, I'm really fine with the evolution of a saint's day becoming the day people wear green, get three sheets to the wind and regret their hangovers the next day.
However, looking into this corned beef and cabbage tradition has added a new element to the whole American interpretation of St. Patty's Day.  Maybe it's also the reason I can't find corned beef here.  It is apparently not considered an Irish dish at all.  Maybe Continental Europeans have no use for the stuff, either.  I'm ashamed to admit I didn't know what the "corned" in the beef actually meant until I looked it up for this post.  Can we all breathe a sigh of relief that I own a copy of McGee on Food & Cooking?  Whew, now I know that the "corn" refers to the large grains of salt used during the preservation process.  I also had no idea that corned beef was an important export product from Ireland during the early-modern period (shame on me, the Early-Modernist for not knowing that), although it was the English colonists in Ireland calling the shots at the time.  Raising beef for export meant less space to grow crops for the colonized inhabitants.  I think we can all agree it's the Irish did not feel like they were getting a fair shake from the ruling English.  So, yeah, corned beef not as Irish as this American girl seemed to think that it was.  
St. Patrick's Day was not acknowledged anywhere I could see.  It was just another Saturday in Amsterdam, although I was horribly disappointed to miss a sour beer festival on Saturday night.  That would have been awesome, but you know, babies tend to be cared for.  Time enough next year for the sour beer festival.  And, no, I didn't find any corned beef.  Sad, I know.  I took a Slate article's advice and made potato leek soup instead.  Potatoes we have in abundance.  Thanks, New World, for giving Ireland the potato and in a really roundabout way making me feel like I celebrated the life of a Roman missionary.


  1. Sour beer. Just TRY to get a Berliner Weissbier around here (sigh). Or a Gueuze that hasn't sat on a shelf for years. My all-time favorite beer was an Oranjeboom that went bad; I was violently ill later (then again, the night ended with my drinking ouzo, so it may not have been the beer), but wanted more.

    Corned beef is Irish-American, as is puking in the streets where hordes of fat people are marching in green clothes they would never be seen in elsewhere.

    There must be a patron saint of Holland that gets celebrated, probably something like St. Bodo of Scheveningen (who I just made up, since even St. Christopher was made up).

    It'd be interesting to see the differences in a kosher deli there and here!

  2. Just checked: St. Nicholas (Sinterklaas!) is considered the patron of at least Amsterdam, Bavo of Ghent, and there's a couple others in the Netherlands.

  3. Steve,
    I really like your saint. You just wanted to be able to write Scheveningen, didn't you? I've been to St. Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent, beautiful church, and I'm still moved by the Van Eyck altarpiece. That was probably one of the most memorable pieces of art I've ever seen. It's amazing.

    We are going to the deli as soon as possible. I have to experience it for myself. They'd better have pickles.

  4. Sadly, all I really know of Scheveningen is the origin of the Scheveningen defense in chess. I remember there being a St. Bodo and I just like the name. I thought he was the one in the Lives of the Saints that was described by a hagiographer as "A filthy man who lived in the woods. People assumed he must have been holy." It was someone else and I have been trying for years to track down that woodsy saint.