There was only one thing I didn’t like about Mom’s corned beef and cabbage.
The corned beef part was great. I didn’t even mind the fact that it was cooked with the cabbage. I could deal with that. But the cabbage part … no way.
Not that I had anything against cabbage. Mom’s fresh coleslaw was crispy and tangy, and I liked raw cabbage as part of a salad. So I was not intolerant of cabbage as a general rule.
But in corned beef and cabbage, the cabbage is boiled. Evidently there are parts of the world where this is considered a good idea. But to me it was like, I don’t know, boiling lettuce.
Now, before you start firing off outraged emails, I’m aware that some people actually eat boiled lettuce, and that some old Roman cookbook includes a recipe for pureed lettuce and onions, so folks have been eating cooked lettuce for centuries. That’s fine for them. But if I’m going to eat leaves, I want them green, fresh, crisp and covered with blue cheese dressing.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, spinach was different, as far as I was concerned. It was the Popeye Factor. I had seen cartoon spinach slide out of the can and into Popeye’s mouth so many times that I pretty much assumed that spinach was always limp and slimy.
Of course, Mom didn’t buy any of that.
“There’s nothing wrong with cooked cabbage,” she said every St. Patrick’s Day when she filled the house with the pungent aroma of the traditional Irish dish. “In many parts of the world it is considered a great treat, almost like ice cream.”
I don’t think Mom actually believed that any more than we did. But Dad always ate every bite of corned beef and cabbage — even the cabbage part — with such undeniable relish that I wondered if maybe I was missing out on something.
So every year I tried it again, usually with some new twist intended to trick my taste buds into thinking I was eating something other than a boiled leaf. One year I measured every forkful to make sure I had exactly twice as much corned beef as cabbage. The problem with this technique was I was out of corned beef by the time the cabbage was only half gone. Another year, I tried drowning the cabbage in red wine vinegar, which only succeeded in replacing one strong, unpleasant taste with another.
Year by year I kept tweaking with different additives and combinations. Some worked — most didn’t. One time my big brother Bud had me convinced that corned beef and cabbage was just a fancy version of hot dogs and sauerkraut, and that the whole dish would taste like a trip to the ball park if I covered it with ketchup, mustard and relish.
The interesting thing is, somehow through all those years of trial, error and ketchup-covered tragedy, I seem to have developed a taste for corned beef and cabbage. I don’t know if my taster matured to the point that I could finally appreciate the heady mix of textures and flavors or if it eventually succumbed after being drowned in a sea of mustard and red wine vinegar. For whatever reason, every year about this time I get a hankering for meat and leaves.
Looking back, it seems there are a lot of things that I didn’t really appreciate in my youth that I later grew to enjoy and even to savor: going to church, Frank Sinatra, sitting in a room with loved ones and just talking and hugging — and being hugged. As we grow, we learn. And as we learn, sometimes we change.
Even if it isn’t always a treat — like ice cream.
To read more by Joseph B. Walker, visit josephbwalker.com. Twitter: JoeWalkerSr