Tuesday, September 25, 2007

On Corned Beef.

September 25th ...

Alice Cunningham Fletcher (1838 – 1923) was an anthropologist and passionate advocate for the American Indian. In an age when women were not expected to stray too far from house and home, she spent years in the field, living with Indian tribes and documenting their culture. On this day in 1881 she was “Camping with the Sioux”, and according to her diary she “Breakfasted on corn beef and coffee.”

We all all know what it was that Alice had for breakfast. She had meat that had been previously salted (or “pickled”). So why not call it salted beef, or pickled beef? Why “corned”? “Corn” is a problem word, one of the words that helps divide America (where it means maize) and England (where it used to mean grain, particularly wheat).

“Corn” is also trite entertainment that appeals to unsophisticated folks (presumably meaning the sort of folk that live in the country and grow corn), or any of us when we are in an unsophisticated mood. None of these explanations bring us any closer to understanding “corned” beef however.

The OED gives a long explanation of the word “corn” which essentially determine that it means a small particle – a “grain” in other words (but not the sort of grain grown as a crop and sometimes called wheat, or is it corn? ….) So we can have corns or grains of salt, for example. Of course, the surface of meat (or fish) preserved with salt can also look “powdered”, which is an alternative name. Salted or pickled beef would be so much easier.

In the unlikely event that you want to corn (salt, pickle, powder) your own beef, I give you the instructions of Miss Corson (1885). As is generally accepted, the best reason for corning meat is to have leftovers to make into hash, so I give her recipe for that too. In between the pickling and the hashing, you have to boil it, but I am sure you can work that out for yourselves.

How To Pickle Meat.
For eighteen pounds of meat, pound to a powder half an ounce of saltpetre and an ounce of brown sugar, and rub the mixture well into the meat; make enough brine to cover the meat, by dissolving in water all the bay salt it will receive; boil it up, and skim it, then cool it, and pour it over the meat in the pickling-tub; for four days take the meat out of the brine every day, rub into it the above quantity of saltpetre and sugar, and replace it in the brine; after four days, turn the meat every day in the brine for ten days; it will then be ready to smoke for eight days, or may remain in the pickle simply as corned meat.

Corned-Beef Hash, New-England Style.
Remove all cartilage and skin from cold corned beef, but do not take away the fat, and then chop it fine. Chop an equal quantity by measure of cold boiled potatoes; season the beef and potatoes rather highly, put them into a frying-pan containing two heaping tablespoonfuls of butter, and stir the hash until it is quite hot. Then move it to one side of the pan, press it firmly together in an oblong cake, and let the bottom brown. When the bottom is nicely browned, turn the hash out on a hot dish without disturbing its shape, and serve it hot.
[Miss Corson's Practical American Cookery and Household Management; 1885]

Tomorrow’s Story …

Shrimp Cocktails.

Quotation for the Day …

Salt is white and pure - there is something holy in salt. Nathaniel Hawthorne.

1 comment:

MaryEllen said...

Only in America! How did I find this article? A Jew, post-Passover, wanting to know the difference between 'deli-cut' and 'first-cut' beef brisket (there was a sale at ShopRite!) finds her way to the recipe for actually 'corning the beef'. Thanks, from an American Jew, to Alice Cunningham Fletcher (1838 – 1923) for hanging out with native Americans and providing me with this recipe!