salt beef, corned beef

So, was there a crossword today that required a military slang word for bread? About a fifth of this blog's hits today came from people looking for such a word. I don't think they found what they were looking for here...but I hope they found something else of interest.

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.

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.
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 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.


  1. You used to be able to get corned mutton but I've not seen it for years.

  2. So is what is sold in Ireland as "spiced beef" closer to what is called corned beef in the States? Does spiced beef exist in England?

    As for pastrami, I don't know where the version found in Irish deli sandwiches draws its inspiration from, but it's a very poor relative of the Middle-Eastern/Armenian original (assuming that that is the original, of course, which it may not be. But it's certainly superior.).

  3. Spam, spam, spam, spam, luverly spam, wonderful spam.

  4. Shouldn't
    prised from a (BrE) tin/(AmE) can
    (BrE) prised from a tin /
    (AmE) pried from a can

    I don't think I've ever heard "prised" in AmE, or "pried" in BrE.

  5. In Ireland itself, the Catholic bishops allow you to eat meat on every Friday of Lent except Good Friday. And as a child giving up sweets for Lent, it went without saying that the fast was suspended for St Patrick's Day, which is always in Lent.

    Bacon and cabbage (or corned beef and cabbage to a lesser extent) are common meals in Ireland, though probably not among under-40s. I don't remember any traditional meal on Patrick's day, though. And do people really wear green clothes in America?

    Spiced beef is the third meat of Christmas dinner in County Cork (after turkey and ham).

    Re Reubens: sauerkraut is not common at all in GB or Ireland, though coleslaw is.

    And a final comment actually relevant to the blog's theme: the word trapezoid quoted in the post and the word trapezium exchange each others' meanings when you cross the Atlantic. An American trapezium or British trapezoid has no parallel sides. A British trapezium or American trapezoid has two parallel sides. I think the corned beef can's shape would, in British English, be an isosceles trapezium prism.

  6. Re: ruebens. In the US, you can occasionally find a rueben made with coleslaw instead of sauerkraut. It is usually called a "rachel". If it's on the menu, I'll order it.

  7. A few notes:

    In addition to classic reuben sandwiches with corned beef, there are also pastrami reubens; personally I prefer them. Corned beef or pastrami, I usually try to get them to leave off the Russian dressing in favor (and flavor) of plain mayo.

    As for the wearing of the green on U.S. St. Patrick's Day, I'd say that's mostly all about professional Irishmen and non-Irish wannabes. James 'Kibo' Parry, who is of impeccable Irish descent, always wears orange instead -- and not, AFAIK, because he is or is not a Protestant, but by way of rebellion against the green hegemony. I myself generally wear whatever color comes out of the closet first.

    Lastly, corned beef got into my household thanks to my German mother, not my Irish-American father. The Ashkenazim had to get it from somewhere, after all.

  8. American Swiss : Emmenthaler = American Cheddar : British Cheddar

  9. I don't see why corned beef has the connotation it appears to have in the UK. I assume it's not only available in isosceles trapezium prismic tins, but is still available as a cut of meat from the butcher, namely, either topside or siverside that has undergone 'corning' (partial pickling in brine). It's best boiled in water with a smidgen of balsamic vinegar, a few bay leaves, some cloves and lots of garlic.

  10. Anon 1: From the recipes I can find for spiced beef, it looks like there's no brine involved, so I don't think it can be too similar to (AmE) corned beef, though the spices may be similar.

    Anon 2: Pry is certainly used more in that sense in AmE than in BrE, but prise is not exclusively BrE. We did that discussion back here.

    Mollymooly: Thanks for the geometry lesson. I'd not come across that difference before.

    About green on St Patrick's see a lot of it. My mother, not of Irish descent, once dressed me in orange to go to church on St Patrick's Day (it not having occurred to her that it was St Patrick's), and I remember the (orig. AmE) ribbing she took from Father McDonnell. My father (he of the Irish surname) has two or three shamrock-y ties to choose from for St Patrick's (and some shamrock or harp socks, I think), but he occasionally wears them for other festive occasions as well.

    Jangari, there aren't that many butchers left in the UK! When I told Better Half about our corned beef tradition, he was quite disgusted because he has only ever seen it as a tinned/canned product. (It doesn't have a very nice colo(u)r when it comes out of the tin either.) I've never spotted it in the meat section of my supermarket. In the US, one usually gets it (these days)vacuum-sealed in plastic, with a bit of brine around it.

    The typical cut of corned beef in the US (and I believe salt beef in the UK) is brisket.

    There are some pictures of tinned corned beef and corned beef brisket here.

  11. (ScE) My father, to his dying day, always referred to corned beef as corned mutton. I remember once when he asked where the corned mutton was and I told him it was corned beef (I have never in my 42 years even seen corned mutton), he looked bemused and asked "what's the difference?"

    The reuben is a truly great American invention, and I do not understand why it is not huge over here due to its utterly impeccable wonderfulness. Maybe because we rarely see sauerkraut, although what better reason to start demanding it??

  12. Is the UK 'corned beef' at all similar to "potted meat?" As best I can tell (from inspection of the outside of the can only), it's akin to "deviled ham/chicken" et alii, but I've never seen "deviled beef."

    I've never understood "Russian" dressing either, and to compound the misnomer, I believe it's made with "French" dressing (plus mayo and relish) which no self-respecting Frenchmen (and I dare say few Americans) would wish to claim.

  13. Russian Dressing is very similar (as the link in the article says) to Thousand Island Dressing, which is apparently called "Burger Sauce" in the is the same stuff that is on a Big Mac. Though I don't know how that may differ between the UK and US.

    And on a similar (if tangential) thought, I have often contested that while the Hamburger is often considered to be the "Traditional" food of the US, I actually believe that the true "US food" is the Sandwich. Now I know that it wasn't originated here, but I think that the sandwich took on a new feeling over here given the Deli's and other sandwich shops that grew over here (not even including Subway and Quiznos)

    Is that a fair assessment? That The Sandwich kind of took on a life of it's own over here? (Are there places like this in the UK?)

    Or am I all sorts of wrong?

  14. I've spent my life avoiding potted meat, so can't comment on that...

    The problem with saying that the sandwich is the national US food is that things like bagels and submarines are not considered 'sandwiches' in BrE. Sandwich is reserved for things between bread (we've discussed this before here). I think the sandwich is far more iconic in the UK. You just don't see sandwich sections in US shops the way that you do in UK shops... and with those triangular wasteful packages...

  15. This has brought back memories of my trip to Britain in the mid-80's, and the one mediocre meal that I had. We had wandered into a London restaurant and I ordered a corned beef sandwich. I was rather dismayed when I got a few thin little slices of mysterious substance that was almost entirely unlike the lovely corned beef I grew up with in Philadelphia. On white bread, with mayo. Bleah. I ate it anyway (it WAS edible)and chalked it up to a learning experience. Thank you for explaining why this happened - I had never quite understood till now.

  16. All this beef obscures the real issue which is the cucumber.
    The attribution in the post, "(AmE) dill pickles/(BrE) dill cucumbers" doesn't match my BrE experience at all. The significant facts about cucumbers pickled with dill are (a) that they are cucumbers and (b) that they are pickled. The dill is nice, but it's hardly a central feature. That leads to what was until recently in the UK, the standard usage "pickled cucumbers" or, occasionally on labels more than in conversation, "pickled dill cucumbers". Standard usage needs to be qualified, because for most BrE speakers, this was not part of their diet in the first place, still less part of their vocabulary.
    More recently, the AmE usage has got a foothold, particularly in upmarket burger bars where there is a need to negotiate - and thus have a vocabulary for - what is going to go in to your hand crafted snack.
    In a lifetime of being a BrE native speaker and obsessive eater of pickled cucumbers, I don't think I have ever heard them referred to as "dill cucumbers".

  17. From the Upper Midwest, here is my comment. A Reuben is made with corned beef, Sauerkraut, rye bread, and 1000 Island dressing.

    Russian dressing is something you buy in a jar that says Kraft on the outside, and you put it on salads, and generally only buy it when you get sick of using 1000 Island or French dressing.

  18. Well, part of the problem, Marek, of course, is that one can't really get what I would call a dill pickle in the UK. All of the local brands have sugar in them--no matter what they call them. But if one buys a Polish brand, like Krakus, they say 'dill cucumbers' or 'pickled dill cucumbers' on the label. Philip, who started the corned/salt beef conversation has told me that one needs to go to a kosher shop and ask for 'a new green'. I haven't had the opportunity to try that yet, so I'm grateful to the Polish shop in my neighbo(u)rhood for selling a variety of non-sweet dill pickles.

  19. Just a brace and a half of comments from a Scottish perspective...

    Jangari: whilst corned beef is available from some butchers, in Scotland at least it is the same as the stuff from the prismatic tins - the sole difference being that the tin the butcher uses is a larger, catering size and rectangular throughout its depth. I've never seen "corned beef" of any other sort so that is the sole connotation in my experience - and as one of the anonymouses experienced.

    jhm: potted meat is very different in ways too horrible to contemplate. Here, in addition, there used to be potted heid (made from heads and no longer available) and there still is potted hough, made from houghs: neither is like corned beef. The only foods I've seen devilled are whitebait, eggs and kidneys and then only as a non-tinned version so I must assume that devilled ham or chicken might be different in ways other than BrE/AmE spelling.

    Lynneguist: as a long-time lurker I'd like to add to the chorus of thanks for such an engaging and informative site.

  20. Scottish Anonymous, you'll have to explain "hough" (unless free-range imaginings are preferable to the reality).

    As a Polak, I should add that even good "boughten" pickles (that might be labeled "Polish Dills") are either cooked or use vinegar or both. Best results are obtained with salt and spices (garlic, horseradish, dill, grape leaves, peppercorn, et alii) only; no Polish community of any size can long persist without "ogórki kiszone" /oh-GOOR-kee keesh-OH-ne/ or "ogórki kwaszone" /kvash-OH-ne/

  21. Does "hough" rhyme with "loch?" If so, are houghs what I would call hocks (the joint in a quadruped's hind leg between the knee and the fetlock)?

  22. I'm with midwest anonymous on the constituents of a reuben, except that he forgot to mention the Swiss cheese. A true reuben is corned beef, sauerkraut, thousand island and Swiss cheese, all on toasted rye. A true American original and one of the world's great inventions.

  23. PS Jhm, yes it does and yes they are.

  24. Hough rhymes with haugh, or Waugh. Obviously. Really, some people.

  25. My mother (69 now and still here in Glasgow), always pronounced it to rhyme with loch when she bought it for us, and the dictionaries I have checked with ( and Chambers in print) agree with her. Dearie me, Dearieme, don't be misleading the poor foreigners!!

  26. jhm: having dropped "hough" into the discussion - for me, as with Cameron, hough rhymes with loch and I've always assumed it was cognate with hock.

    A quick check with the Concise Scots Dictionary and - yes - they agree too. And the sadly underused word "houghmagandy" is related as well (described as "=fornication").

    And as an aside, when I was away down south in Edinburgh, "Corned Beef" was rhyming slang for "deaf" (pronounced "deef" of course)...

  27. Here's the answer to (parts of) your opening question.

  28. Chentlemen, chentlemen. "Haugh" and "Waugh" also rhyme with "loch". Unless you've been Anglicised.

  29. and then here in Montreal, we have 'smoked meat' which is something similar, but different :)

  30. > dearieme said...
    Chentlemen, chentlemen. "Haugh" and "Waugh" also rhyme with "loch". Unless you've been Anglicised.

    In Bolton, Lancs, "Haugh" is pronounced "Hoff". Unless you've been unlancastrianized :-) !

  31. I can still remeber the first time that I heard a Cumbrian pronounce Waugh as Woff. Then my father told me about the novelist.

  32. I will always associate “corned beef” with rationing in the UK during the Second World War. It was meat, presumably beef, compressed into a tin and it helped to supplement our meagre diet.

  33. Hold on here.
    I am a New Yorker living in London.
    In New York if you go into any reasonable deli and order a 'pastrami on rye', you get exactly that, with a pickle on the side. No cheese. No mayo. No dressings of any sort.
    I grew up in New York eating pastrami on rye sandwiches.
    The closest thing to New York pastrami here in London, is something called Salt Beef.
    What they sell as Pastrami here in London, tastes nothing like New York Pastrami.
    Here in London there is a restaurant on Baker Street that sells salt beef and or pastrami sandwiches. It is called Rubens. I am left wondering if it was the source for the name applied to what some posters are calling a Reuben sandwich.
    Places here in London to get the best New York style pastrami are Selfridges restaurant on Oxford street. They do absolutely the best. Unfortunately you have to ask for Salt Beef. The Pastrami they sell is some jived up spicy meat that is nothing like New York Pastrami.
    They do not put cheese or dressing or anything else other than mustard on it. It's finger licking good.
    Another source of Pastrami (salt beef) here in London, is the Brick Lane Bagel Shop. The meat is poor quality with lumps of gristle or fat attached. Basically rubbish.
    Then there is Blooms, formerly of Whitechapel, now in Golders Green. Nothing special.
    Then you have a sandwich shop here in London called 'Pret a Mange'. They sell something that tries to pass itself of as a Pastrami sandwich. It actually has some meat in it, along with lettuce or spinach, tomatoes, cheese, and a gallon of sauce made from horseraddish and perhaps mustard. You cannot taste any meat at all. It is basically a rubbish sandwich and they should be done for fraud.
    From Jack in London

  34. No, Jack, a London restaurant is not the origin for what posters here are calling a reuben sandwich. The origin is probably Omaha and possibly your own New York, as revealed here:


  36. While the jars may say 'pickled cucumbers', we actually call them 'gherkins' in Britain. You can get them in 'sweet & sour' (read: sweet and sickly) or unsweetened varieties. There are also salt gherkins from Poland, but fish-and-chip shops often sell large salt gherkins, commonly called 'wallies', alongside the smaller vinegar-pickled type.

  37. Being Canadian often leaves me in the funny nexus that exists between overwhelming American influence yet a history of British food products. Here, corned beef is the tinned (canned as Canadians usually follow the American nomenclature for this) version in trapezoidal can from South America. However, American corned beef is also readily available leading to some confusion. Most delis and restaurants are wholly American style. I've just opened a can and I topped it off with Lea & Perrins Worchester, in which the Canadian version follows the UK recipe and is markedly different from the U.S. version of the same brand. In Canada, you are apt to hear AmE overwhelmingly in language but you will often see BrE in writing (neighbourhood) and Britishness in many food products. (Goes off to have some Lyle's Golden Syrup).

  38. Everyone in England must have suffered a corned beef tin cut on their finger. They were really sharp and made a deep cut. If you get a good make like Frey Bentos and keep it in the fridge before opening it slices really nicely and is lovely with either a fresh tomato or Branston pickle. A staple from my childhood. None of this toasted rye stuff but prooper fresh white bread.

  39. Beef hough in Scotland is what in England sells as shin of beef. The best cut of all for stewing — if you have the time.

    In my childhood in the 1940's corned beef was ubiquitous. During the War and for years aftweards, fresh meat was expensive and rationed. Factories in South America supplied us with this plentiful, non-perishable, cheap substitute. The superior stuff you call corned beef in America would have no appeal; if my elders could afford that sort of luxury, they'd spend it on proper fresh meat.

    Salt brisket for gentiles and salt beef for Jews were essentially the same thing — a brisket joint pickled, boiled and, I believe, pressed. The corned beef we ate then and have eaten ever since was made not from a joint but from compressed pieces, so the texture is entirely different from salt beef. And the taste is more fatty, and devoid of any spice. Only the colour is similar. This product erased any memory of pre-rationing corned beef, which might well have resembled the American stuff.

  40. Here in the midwest of America, we put thousand Island dressing on our ruebens.

  41. This discussion reminds me of a problem with US readings of Harry Potter. Ron Weasley gets given corned beef sandwiches to eat on the train to Hogwarts and complains about it. In the UK, that's a perfectly reasonable complaint at having to eat cheap and nasty sandwiches. In the US, that indicates he's a picky, whiny eater.

  42. I came here from a more recent post on sandwiches.

    The big difference is that British corned beef is made from minced (AmE ground) beef.

    It is a very cheap product indeed and totally different from American corned beef.

    The nearest thing to US corned beef in the UK is called salt beef.

  43. Reubens are not from Jewish Delis, They are from "Kosher style" ones . No Kosher observant Jew would mix meat and cheese !
    Pastrami is close to the Pickled Meat as sold in the Kosher deli in Manchester. Just the delicious meat without the indigestion causing peppers and spices rub on the outside very thinly sliced, mmmmm !

  44. The Reuben is probably a snide anti-semitic eponym ! No Kosher observant Jew would eat Meat and Cheese !

  45. This was very helpful! Thanks for posting. Has saved me a lot of grief with my British colleagues.

  46. And here I thought it was Cornish like a Cornish hen had no clue it referenced the salt. You learn something new every day!


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AmE = American English
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OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)