In praise of corned beef

May 11, 2011

You have to be of a certain age to remember corned beef. For those of you too young to remember and too lazy to look it up on wikipedia, here’s what I’m talking about:

Interestingly, and appropriately for my story, it is one of those old English names that is totally misleading – it doesn’t contain any corn at all, but the ‘corn’ bit refers to grains of salt used to cure it, or preserve it. Because it was preserved, it could survive long sea voyages across the empire without rotting.  British soldiers and sailors basically lived on it, so in a very real sense it fuelled the imperial project.

In fact, it also helped to bugger up Irealnd, becuase the best beef was irish, so the English bagged the best grazing land for their cattle and the Irish farmers (ie practically everybody as Ireland didn’t really have an industrial revolution till the late 20th century) were forced on to marginal land, where the only thing they could grow was potatoes. In the mid-19th century, potato blight killed all the spuds and the Irish either emigrated to America or starved.

So, in a nutshell, bully beef, or salt beef or corned beef has a lot to answer for. It is the reason most of the world speaks English, it is the reason London is the coolest and most cosmopolitan place on earth, and it is why 16 of the 40-odd American presidents claim Irish descent (yes, including the present one).

And I’m telling you all this because…? It’s because, in Tesco just now, I saw a tin of Fray Bentos (it’s a town in Uruguay that does a lot of meat processing, but that’s another story), and popped it in my shopping basket, almost without thinking. I wonder, rather than eating it, if I should  frame it as a monument to history…


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