Corned Beef

Libby_McNeill_&_Libby_Corned_Beef_1898

It was St. Patrick’s Day recently.

It’s been almost a year since my paternal grandfather, who I’m named after, passed away. He actually died on my birthday, which was hilarious in hindsight but depressing to deal with at the time. Nothing crashes a good teaching day like that sorta news, but whatever.

He loved corned beef and cabbage on St. Paddy’s Day. Corned beef, boiled cabbage, and boiled potatoes. As a kid, I could never understand why. Corned beef smelled fucking terrible to me, as did the cabbage. It was a boiled monster creeping into my grandma’s dining room once a year, so I’d complain and not want any and they’d let me eat whatever other leftovers were in the fridge, be it two-day-old pasta or tuna salad or something like that. It was a tradition.

My grandfather came over from Greece as a young man for a variety of reasons, chiefly to find work but also to get away from an impending famine and the blight of the Axis Powers in Europe. He worked in various high-rise office buildings and apartment complexes in Manhattan, doing plumbing and HVAC work. He raised my dad, my aunt, and my uncle in the Lower East Side before they moved to the house in Queens my grandmother and parents live in now, the house I actually more or less grew up in. He smoked on and off, drank coffee and cognac, hosted New Year’s and Christmas celebrations among his circle of friends and relatives, and watched John Wayne in The Quiet Man and Charleton Heston in The Agony and the Ecstasy.

My grandfather loved corned beef and cabbage.

When you get older, the human palate starts to change, triggered by both your natural growth but also the slow death of the billions of tasting sensors on our tongue. Your food sensitivity (and thus your smell sensitivity) are off the charts as a small child, which is why kids love sweets but hate sour or bitter foods like say, vegetables, for the most part.

As we get older, many people develop tastes that are difference from the tastes they had as small kids. Sours and bitters (two different things as far as I’m concerned), salty, and spicy all become things we respond to positively in our food, probably because they can still trigger intense reactions in the taste buds we still have at that age.

I had weird food tastes when I was younger, in hindsight. I didn’t like sauce on my spaghetti, I didn’t like hot food, and, like a lot of kids, there were reactions to weird textures. I liked bread and rice mostly, sweets obviously, hot dogs, and apples. Now though? Oh man, bring the tangy, the sour and the spicy and hot and oily.

Obviously there will be weirdo kids like me who ate their veggies and some people will never like spicy stuff or hot sauces, but for the most part, this explains why my dad puts vinegar on all his stews and soups and sops it up with bread. It’s why my brother consumes the sour fish cooked whole in oil cold at four AM. It explains why I love pickles, black coffee, sriracha, and the hot sour peppers in oil my grandma makes.

It’s why I love corned beef and cabbage.

Corned beef’s got a surprisingly light taste to it, considering the natural protein density of beef. The boiling of the preserved meat, cured in salt, gets that bright pink-red color going, and it’s fatty to the point that boiling it makes the fat so soft it can be scraped off with a spoon. It shreds like pulled pork, so slicing it is more or less a formality, you can tear into it with a fork. With mustard smeared on it and served with sliced pickles (something I did last time I ate it), it’s actually delicious. Boiled potatoes covered in salt (something else he did) are always great, and thinking back, I’ve actually liked boiled cabbage since I was a teenager. It works best, I think, as a wrap for dumplings my grandma makes, but that’s another story. Again, with mustard and pickles, because why not?

When I went over there recently, I just wolfed all of that down. My mom and my grandmother were there and commented that I usually didn’t like it, and were a bit surprised I was excited for it. My grandmother was pleased, though, probably because, as I said out loud to them, I knew it had been his favorite food.

Considering everything my grandmother would cook for him, and she cooked a lot (still does), I don’t know why he liked it so much. Was it a wartime thing, or was it just something that he was exposed to when he came to New York, where it was a cheap and popular meat, and he took to it? I used to think it was an old man thing, like so many other things he did, including the mustache, cheating at cards, the occasional casual racism (despite his weirdly progressive personal politics), and sneaking smokes after his first surgery to remove a benign cyst from his knee.

I still don’t know why he liked it, almost a year after he died and about two years or so since he could eat it. Cancer slowly ate away his appetite for solid food over the past few years, at one point I had to basically chide him to eat toast to keep his blood sugar and energy levels up so he didn’t collapse randomly around the house.

 –

The first thing of his that I got after the funeral was his electric shaving razor, which my grandmother handed to me still in the box. He’d bought it but never used it, soon after he’d started to go downhill and she shaved him with a hand razor, until his pain was too much for that. Then, she gave me his old trimming kit, for brushing and trimming your mustache. This was a little more personal, and it’s something I legitimately treasure as well as use.

A few months later, she came back from going to Greece for a while, and she brought a bunch of his things back to the US, which she gave to my dad, his brother, my brother, and myself. I got one of his pocket knives, a Swiss Army knife he probably got from the Marlboro catalogue. I can’t help though but think that maybe I got more from him over the years that I didn’t really think about. There’s the love of old movies, like The Quiet Man with John Wayne. I did’t get the card-playing, but I did get the on-and-off smoking and I definitely got the constant books and reading, scattered all over in piles.

There’s the post-church/family event tradition of the only drink being Scotch on the rocks, which definitely started with him. I know I got the love of fried eggs with ham in the morning and the nonstop downing of coffee like water, and even though a lot of family will tell me I tend to favor my mother’s father more in terms of demeanor, like my dad I got my grandfather’s sense of humor, which terrified me as a little kid but I snorted at when I got older.

I guess I also got corned beef and cabbage.

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