Feeding an Irish-American Tradition: Corned Beef

Digging into food origins can tell you a lot about history, including revealing some of our widely-held misconceptions. Take for example the belief that for centuries, the Irish have celebrated St. Patrick’s Day by devouring plates of corned beef and cabbage. Like most customs, the truth is far more convoluted and more interesting.

Way back in the day, Ireland had plenty of cattle, but they were valued for their milk production and strength for farming, pulling wagons etc. Beef was only on the menu when the cattle became too old or were injured, not only because beef was ridiculously expensive, but because the Irish (back then) saw cows as a symbol of wealth and prosperity, and the Celtic druids considered them to be sacred.

Both before and after the Potato Famine of 1845, over a million Irish emigrated to America in order to find a better life, and even though their situations improved somewhat, they were still relegated to living among the poorer (ie. Italian and Jewish) communities in the States. Interestingly enough, it was this unique combination of cultures that led to the St. Paddy’s Day custom we know and love today. Due to its similarity in flavor to bacon, the Irish began purchasing corned beef or salt beef from their Jewish neighborhood butcher shops, and thus the Irish American tradition began.

As anyone who has experienced St. Patrick’s Day in New Orleans can attest, the Irish American culture is alive and well. Folks down here are as enthusiastic about the many St. Paddy’s parades and celebrations as they are about Mardi Gras, and that include the copious consumption of corned beef. If you’re looking for a place to enjoy a corned beef sandwich, or perhaps seeking a corned beef brisket to take home and prepare with all of the fixings you caught at the parade, there’s plenty to choose from!

Probably the most ubiquitous of corned beef preparations is the Reuben sandwich, and Buffa’s Bar & Restaurant is an excellent (though lesser known) spot to score one. Found on the edge of the French Quarter, Buffa’s has been on the corner of Esplanade and Burgundy for over 80 years. Along with live, local music and affordable libations, Buffa’s has a great menu featuring everything from fried green beans and alligator meatballs to chicken wings and their special bratwurst jambalaya. As you may have guessed, they also offer an incredible Reuben. Their own house made corned beef is thinly sliced and piled onto grilled rye bread with sauerkraut, Thousand Island dressing and melty Swiss.

Over in the Lower Garden District on Magazine Street, Stein’s Market & Deli has not been around as long as Buffa’s, but is widely known to serve a killer sandwich. Philadelphia native and owner Dan Stein has been slinging sandwiches (and a whole lot more) in New Orleans since 2007. His Jewish/Italian deli orders cured meats, cheeses, and other products from all over the world, resulting in the creation of lunchtime specialties to rave about. Along with New York bagels loaded with cream cheese and lox, tuna melts and caprese hoagies, Stein’s offers several corned beef sandwiches, including the famed Reuben. The beef, shipped in from State National or Old World, is thinly sliced and grilled, and piled high on rye with Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Russian dressing for $13.99. The deli also offers a regular corned beef sandwich (add pastrami if you’d like!) with cheese of your choice, and a corned beef special is available on Wednesdays where the raw corned beef is steamed in house that morning. You can also purchase corned beef from the deli case if you’re looking to take some home for your own creations.

While Parkway Bakery is known for their po-boys, it’s also a great spot to score a stellar corned beef sandwich. Located on the Bayou St. John, this old-school, neighborhood restaurant has been around since 1911, and now (thanks to Goldbelly) you can enjoy their goods all over the country. Parkway orders raw corned brisket from the Vienna Beef Company in Chicago, which is steamed, sliced and served with sauerkraut and Swiss on thick cut rye bread with Thousand Island dressing.

In Mid City, just a block from Norman C. Francis Parkway, Piece of Meat is a relatively new meatery owned and operated by Leighann Smith and Daniel Jackson. Working closely with farmers dedicated to treating their animals humanely, the duo offers a nose-to-tail butcher shop with high quality meats. The fact that they feature a menu which includes sandwiches, rib plates and charcuterie is just the marbling on the beef — so to speak. Not only can you purchase house-cured corned beef by the pound, Piece of Meat also has a killer sandwich dubbed “The Reverend” made with thickly sliced corned beef, spicy brown mustard and pickled cabbage on rye. They’ve also been known to offer specials such as a corned beef loaded bagel and corned beef hash.

Wrapping things up, the famous Warehouse District restaurant Mother’s deserves an honorable mention. Though they have removed their corned beef from the regular menu, Mother’s still offers corned beef specials twice a year; corned beef and black eyed peas during New Year’s and corned beef with cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day. The restaurant orders their beef already “corned,” and it is then cooked and sliced in house. While many cooks steam their corned beef, Mother’s braises theirs low and slow in a pan with onions, garlic, black peppercorns, thyme and whole cloves.

*Article originally published in the March 2022 issue of Where Y’at Magazine

**Photo courtesy of Parkway Bakery

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