Happy March, which means Happy Spring, and Happy St. Patrick’s Day! For this month’s posting, we are sharing a Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific (CRI&P) recipe for New England Boiled Dinner, which is very similar to the traditional Irish-American dish of Corned Beef and Cabbage. Contrary to popular belief, corned beef and cabbage is not an Irish dish, but rather an Irish-American dish.

Corned beef has a rather complicated history. In Gaelic Ireland cattle were sacred and a symbol for wealth, used for labor and dairy, but not frequently for their beef. They were consumed for their beef only when they became too old to work. As a result, beef was only eaten by the elite during festivals.

Corned beef has been produced in Ireland for centuries, however after the British gained control of Ireland beef became a commodity primarily for the British market. The British coined the phrase “corned beef” in the 17th Century due to the size of the salt crystals used in preservation, as they were close to the size of corn kernels. Salt had a very low tax in Ireland at this time, only about 1/10 of the tax in England; therefore salted beef was more heavily produced in Ireland yet exported to Britain. Before long, Ireland’s salted beef was exported to the North American colonies. This corned beef was much, much saltier and tougher than the corned beef we know today.

Ironically, even though Ireland was the primary corned beef supplier, due to British control it was cost prohibitive for the average Irish family. Thus, pork and bacon were the meats of choice consumed by the Irish while in Ireland. After the Great Famine began in 1845, many Irish immigrated to America to escape the awful conditions. Upon arrival in North America, they discovered that corned beef was much less expensive, and consumed by many immigrant groups, such as the Jewish Eastern Europeans who settled in New York City. The Jewish corned beef was from a better cut of meat, and was much closer to the tender, flavorful corned beef we know today, so the Irish would often get their corned beef from the Jewish butchers.

St. Patrick’s Day, which was a religious feast holiday in Ireland, became a celebration of heritage and homeland for Irish-Americans. As corned beef was more affordable, it became a staple over the last century and a half, and thus a new meal tradition for Irish-American St. Patrick’s Day was born.

Figure 1 Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific silver creamer. Colorado Railroad Museum Collection.

The Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific gained notoriety early in American railroad history, as it was the first railroad to build a bridge across the Mississippi River in 1856. While this bridge was progressive for the railroad, it was problematic for steamboats traveling the river. Thus, a lawsuit was filed by the steamboat companies against the CRI&P, for which Abraham Lincoln happened to be a defense attorney. Lincoln and the attorney team were successful and won the lawsuit for the CRI&P.

The CRI&P had over 7,500 miles of track that spanned 14 states, including major cities like Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Houston, and Des Moines. It also connected to Los Angeles via the Southern Pacific in New Mexico.

New England Boiled Dinner was just one of the many dishes served aboard the CRI&P dining cars. You’ll see that this dish includes both corned beef and salt pork, so perhaps that’s a testament to its Irish and American roots! If you try it, please let us know how it tastes via our Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter accounts.

Recipe from Dinner in the Diner: Great Railroad Recipes of All Time by Will C. Hollister

3 lbs. corned beef
Beef brisket
1.5 lbs. salt pork
2 heads of cabbage
Baby carrots
Small boiling onions
Whole, peeled potatoes

Boil 3 lbs. of fresh brisket of corned beef along with 1.5 lbs. of salt pork. Boil a brisket of beef separately. Boil 2 heads of cabbage. Cut each head into four quarters. In juice of which corned beef was cooked, boil whole baby carrots and small boiling onions. When these are half done, add turnips. Whole peeled potatoes should be boiled separately. Dish up with cabbage in center of platter, with slice of corned beef, slice of fresh beef, and slice of salt pork alternately. Arrange boiled potatoes around platter. Sprinkle with chopped parsley. Serves 6 to 8.

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