Published on 03/09/06

As American as a green St. Patrick’s Day

By Stephanie Schupska
University of Georgia

Green beer isn’t Irish. Neither is corned beef and cabbage. But along with green rivers and green clothes, they define an American Saint Patrick’s Day.

Across the ocean on March 17, many Irish will probably fill their pots with the customary lamb and potatoes.

“People in Ireland don’t see anything we eat as traditional Irish food,” said Connie Crawley, a University of Georgia Cooperative Extension health and nutrition specialist.

“Their ideas are typical lamb dishes. It’s really what we’ve kind of developed in this country to be Irish foods. Originally, lamb was probably more expensive in this country, so we switched to beef.”

Crawley traces her roots back to Ireland. Like her ancestors, she said, many Irish immigrants were very poor when they first came to America. And that might be when corned beef came into play.

“It was probably used because it was one of the least expensive meats,” she said. “It probably wasn’t as flavorful a piece of meat, and that’s why it was seasoned, to make it more tender and more tasty.”

While all beef has some saturated fat and cholesterol, Crawley said, corned beef’s biggest downfall is its sodium content. Just 3 ounces of cooked corned beef brisket has 964 milligrams of sodium, slightly less than half of what a person should eat daily.

For those measuring, a 3-ounce serving is the size of a deck of cards. Most people eat a slab of corned beef two to three times that size.

“It’s something that’s a special-occasion food,” Crawley said of corned beef.

Potatoes are probably the most Irish part of any American St. Patrick’s Day dish. Many Irish originally came to the U.S. to escape starvation due to the potato famine.

“Potatoes were a very big part of their diet at that point, and they still are,” Crawley said. “That’s probably why potatoes are so popular in this country.”

Americans can enjoy a St. Patrick’s Day fare of corned beef, cabbage and potatoes with a little less guilt and with relatively little hassle. Crawley suggests balancing that sodium-loaded meal by eating foods lower in sodium the rest of the day.

Also, add the cabbage and unpeeled potatoes in the last 10-20 minutes of cooking so that “they’re barely cooked instead of cooked to death,” she said.

Find corned beef that’s as lean as possible, or cook it on March 16 and skim off the fat before reheating it on St. Patrick’s Day.

Crawley first heard of green beer in the 1970s in Cleveland, Ohio.

“I think the Irish would probably be horrified,” she said. “It’s probably a marketing tool for bars.”

Instead of indulging in dyed beer, she said, “there are good Irish beers available. And maybe if you buy a better beer, you won’t drink as much.”

A serving of alcohol is a 12-ounce beer, 4 to 5 ounces of wine or 1 to 1.5 ounces of hard liquor. Men should drink two or fewer servings a day. Women should drink one or less due to a direct relation between excess alcohol and breast cancer.

“Beer has a lot of calories and not much else,” Crawley said. “Moderate intake may have some health benefits. But, again, the risk of abuse is so much there that people who don’t drink shouldn’t start.”

As for what the Irish may be serving on St. Patrick’s Day, “I went to an Irish pub in Amsterdam, and what they served was shepherd’s pie [a casserole-type dish with layers of ground beef or lamb, carrots and green peas, topped with mashed potatoes],” she said. Traditional dishes also include lamb stew with potatoes and carrots. But that may be changing a bit.

“Until the 1990s, people were leaving Ireland to work in other countries,” Crawley said. “Now, people are moving back.”

As the Irish economy booms, she said, restaurants there are leading a renaissance with novel, innovative cuisine.

(Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Stephanie Schupska is the communications coordinator with the University of Georgia Honors College.