I'd said that I was going to try to get through April's backlog of queries before term starts. Well, term starts tomorrow, and I have more than one April query left, so it's looking unlikely. But here's one. Philip, the man responsible for my shot at Saturday night television fame, wrote back in the spring to ask:
If you want to order a salt beef sandwich in the US, what do you ask for?My reply was that you order a corned beef sandwich. Both countries have a beef called corned beef, but they tend to be a bit different, with American corned beef being more spiced than the British kind and not usually prised from a (BrE) tin/(AmE) can. As Wikipedia said (back in April when I first checked it on this subject): "In Britain, corned beef is almost always found in trapezoid cans and imported from South America."
In the US, corned beef is associated mainly with two ethnic subcultures, starting with the Jews. Corned beef, like pastrami, is a major element of Jewish delicatessen fare in the US. (See this menu, for example.) It is the meat of one of the most archetypal deli sandwiches, the Reuben: rye bread, corned beef, Swiss cheese (more commonly referred to in BrE as Emmental--which is what 'Swiss cheese' usually is; it's just not usually called that in American), sauerkraut and Russian dressing -- an American condiment that has little to do with Russia. This is in contrast to the Reuben at a Brighton delicatessen, which is a bagel with pastrami, Swiss cheese, (AmE) dill pickles/(BrE) dill cucumbers (though they do use the more AmE name on the menu), tomatoes and mild (i.e. American-style yellow) mustard. I am always tempted to accuse that deli of misusing the name Reuben, but since (not being a sauerkraut fan) I like that kind of Reuben better than the AmE kind, I figure I should put up and shut up (playing on the primarily AmE phrase, put up or shut up).
The other American ethnic group associated with corned beef is the Irish-Americans, who eat it boiled with cabbage and potatoes as a St Patrick's Day tradition (and at other times too). On this Wikipedia comments:
According to the History Channel, while cabbage has become a traditional food item for Irish-Americans, corned beef was originally a substitute for Irish bacon in the late 1800s. Irish immigrants living in New York City's Lower East Side sought an equivalent in taste and texture to their traditional Irish bacon, and learned about this cheaper alternative to bacon from their Jewish neighbors. A similar dish is the New England boiled dinner, consisting of corned beef, cabbage, and root vegetables such as carrots, turnips, and potatoes, which is popular in New England and parts of Atlantic Canada.And that's what I remember eating every St Patrick's Day during my childhood (although some of those must have fallen on Fridays, and my parents weren't the kind of Catholics who would put Irish-American tradition ahead of Lenten custom, so we might've had it on St Patrick's Eve sometimes...).
The Saint Patrick Day tradition caused controversy among American Catholic dioceses in 2000 and 2006, when the holiday fell on a Friday during Lent. Lenten custom dictates that no meat be consumed on Fridays during Lent, but some bishops granted dispensations to their dioceses for eating corned beef on St Patrick's Day.
The OED doesn't give salt beef its own entry, so I don't have a lot of information about the term's history, though since beef has been salted for centuries, it goes back some way. But what's interesting for Americans is to go into delis in the UK that claim to be 'Authentic New York Delicatessen' and find that the sandwiches are filled with a meat with some mysterious (to us) name. I would assume that British "New York-style" delis stick with salt beef because corned beef has such negative associations with unsavo(u)ry (BrE) tinned/(AmE) canned meat, also known in the UK as Bully beef. I don't care what it's called, so long as I can get a good corned/salt beef sandwich in the event of a hangover. I don't know that it has any curative properties, but it's only when I'm in a rough state that I can justify the calories to myself.