Others may identify this time of year with the last gasp of winter, the return of baseball, even the Ides of March.
For those in the meat business, however, the approach of St. Patrick’s Day can mean only one thing: It’s corned beef season.
Production lines have been working overtime for weeks and restaurants and grocery stores are laying in extra supplies of the specially cured beef as next Saturday’s holiday draws near.
Corned beef and cabbage is about as pure Irish a holiday dish as green beer. But with millions of Irish-Americans and Irish wannabes partaking of it on and around March 17, that means plenty of
green for businesses that help get the star product from beef plant to customer’s plate.
After all, as Barbara Sidman put it after eating a heaping portion for lunch at Manny’s Coffee Shop & Deli in Chicago: “It wouldn’t be a holiday without corned beef, and corned beef is
twice as good on the holiday.”
It’s better than that for Vienna Beef Ltd., the venerable Chicago meat company known best for its hot dogs.
The $100 million firm has been peddling franks since Austro-Hungarian immigrants and company founders Emil Reichel and Sam Ladany introduced the Chicago-style dog at the 1893 World’s Fair. It
sells $50 million worth of hot dogs annually to about $15 million of corned beef. But from late January to the second week of March, corned-beef production accelerates dramatically as workers
shift over from soups, sausages and other deli meats to help with the St. Patrick’s rush.
All told, half its annual volume of 3 million pounds of the salty beef is churned out during the hectic six-week period.
“It’s probably the most impactful holiday that we have,” said Jack Bodman, senior vice president for production, on a recent tour of the firm’s 140,000-square-foot plant. “This holiday helps a
lot with the identity of the product.”
Corned, or brined, beef traditionally is a brisket taken from the lower forequarter of a steer. The brine makes it red.
But non-devotees may not know the myths behind the meat.
For starters, its roots as a holiday dish are in New York City, not Ireland, where traditional St. Patrick’s Day meals are likely to feature boiled bacon instead. Irish immigrants substituted
corned beef for bacon in the late 1800s to save money and it caught on.