Like a meaty metaphor for the American Dream, this East Coast delicacy is a food forged from travel, adversity and collaboration between some of the world’s most diverse cultures. Being a country built by a hotchpotch of different nationalities, it is no secret that many of America’s most famous foods began life on the other side of the Atlantic. African-American culture brought ‘soul food’ to the table – a heady mix of slow-cooked meat, vegetables, grits and cornbread; during the War of Independence, American palates were changed forever when French allies arrived not only with muskets and swords but also French fries; and after the Second World War, veterans of campaigns in Italy popularised pasta, pizza and authentic ice cream.
But how about the contribution of two lesser-known cuisines: what did the curious coupling of Irish and Armenian culinary cultures do for the American diet? The answer is actually pretty impressive: salt beef, a product made famous by New York’s most celebrated sandwich, The Reuben, comprised of salt beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing, all wedged precipitously between two thin slices of rye bread. New Yorkers aren’t the only ones who appreciate it; you’ll find variations on this classic in the likes of Nebraska, Montreal, Michigan, the Florida Keys and along the entire coast of California – not bad for a sandwich whose prime ingredient hails from two countries that would both fit comfortably inside Ohio.
Despite its popularity, salt beef remains an enigma: few know who invented it or even how it’s made. First things first, while Americans tend to call all salt beef ‘corned beef’, they are not referring to the tinned stuff. No, salt beef is a different beast entirely.
With its ability to remove water, kill toxins, focus flavour and break down tough flesh, salt has been used as a preservative for meat since antiquity. In Ireland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the favoured beef cuts for curing were brisket, topside and silverside, which were sent by ship to supply the slave plantations and construction gangs of North America.
During these long voyages, the meat was rubbed with salt twice a day for six days before being packed into a barrel filled with yet more salt and left to stand for a further week. Finally, the salt was removed, the meat was covered in brine and the lid of the barrel sealed. Not content with the saltiness of their meat already, some sailors reportedly towed it behind the ship. The meat that emerged in America was noted for being both flavourful and extremely tender, and it wasn’t long before it gained a loyal following beyond the East Coast.
But Ireland wasn’t the only nation to master the art of curing. Other countries took salted meat to the next level by drying, smoking or marinating it with an array of local spices. These methods gave rise to such delicacies as East Asian bak kwa, South African biltong, Spanish cecina and Armenian pastrami, the last of which was thinly sliced and marinated with garlic and cumin, or a paste of paprika and fenugreek. As America’s population of immigrants from all corners of the world began to grow, many of the techniques used in making these meats were also transported to the New World.
By the end of the eighteenth century, demand for Irish salt beef was in decline as New York’s butchers learned to make their own version, by this stage a mouth-watering combination of traditional Irish salt beef and Armenian pastrami. When the Irish potato famine forced thousands of immigrants to flee to New York in the mid-nineteenth century, many settled in Jewish inner-city neighbourhoods. Here, in an ironic twist befitting of a city whose cultural influences stretch far back and are ever-changing, they bought their meat from kosher butchers that mimicked many of the salting methods invented by their relatives some 150 years before.