14 March, 2010

Vintage Sunday: Bringing Up Father

In 1913, cartoonist George McManus introduced a comic strip called Bringing Up Father.  It featured Jiggs, an Irish bricklayer and his washerwoman wife Maggie.  Jiggs, a recent immigrant to the US, wins the Irish Sweepstakes lottery and becomes an instant millionaire.  For all his money, however, Jiggs is still a simple soul who is thankful that he no longer has to be a laborer, but still wants nothing more than to visit the local tavern to drink and play cards with his buddies from the old neighborhood.  Maggie, however, is socially ambitious and eager to leave her humble origins behind.  She doesn't approve of Jiggs' drinking, or smoking in the parlor, or his favorite dinner:  boiled salt beef and cabbage - a cheap and filling meal that reminds her of their working-class past.

Click the image to view full size.
The reason Jiggs and Maggie are here on Vintage Sunday is because of that favorite dinner, which is more commonly known in the US these days as corned beef and cabbage, and has become an American traditional dinner for St. Patrick's Day.  In fact, it's a common American misconception that corned beef and cabbage is some sort of traditional ethnic Irish food, when it really isn't anything of the sort.

For most of Irish history, pork was actually the preferred meat.  Beef cattle were highly prized for the production of dairy goods and as a measure of wealth, not as meat.  Actually those who could afford beef at all would eat it fresh, not "corned" (which means "salted," owing to the use of coarse salt crystals the size of "corns," or grains, of wheat.)  Beef was already prohibitively expensive; adding pricey salt to it made the meat so dear that corned beef would be out of reach for the average Irish family except as a special holiday meal (usually Easter.)  The closest thing to a corned beef dinner in Ireland was a dish called "bacon and cabbage."  The "bacon" used was very similar to a cheap American ham, and it was soaked to draw off some of the salt and then braised with cabbage to be served in it's own juices.

When Irish immigrants came to America, however, they found that salted beef was cheap and widely available - boiled corned beef, cabbage, and root vegetables had a long history in the northeast where we've commonly called it "New England Boiled Dinner."  The dish was popular with the Irish in America because they were poor, not because corned beef and cabbage was Irish.

And that, my friends, is where Bringing Up Father comes in.

McManus' comic strip was an instant hit and quickly became hugely popular.  Jiggs was a likeable character, the strip was sophisticated and witty, and the draftsmanship was superb.  It's hard for us today, with so many forms of media competing for attention, to imagine just how influential Bringing Up Father was in its early years.  In the public mind, Jiggs' fondness for his favorite comfort food became unbreakably linked with his Irish ethnicity rather than his former poverty.  By the 1950's, when Jiggs' "Irishness" had faded and he became regarded as  just a rich but regular guy who liked to hang out with his old pals, the notion of corned beef and cabbage as an ethnic Irish dish had become a firm and lasting piece of American pop culture.



Stella said...

Nice post, Dave! I love Jiggs, but I admit I only know of this cartoon b/c of my father who was a journalist and editor of a large newspaper. My Dad was overly aware of both pop and underworld comics, novels and writings of any sort. He is half Irish, grew up very poor, and most likely relates to good old Jiggs just a bit...
Happy St. Pat's

Scott Spolverino said...

I do have to admit, it is a sad commentary that Jiggs is constantly persuaded to give up his favorite food of humble and poor origins just because it makes him look "lower class". The weird cuts of meat and the frugal uses of all parts of the animal have resulted in fantastic culinary backgrounds through all cultures (Germany, France, Ireland, Scotland, etc.). It's a pity that food so delicious is seen as not just unappetizing today but as low-brow and crude. Corned beef, cabbage, and potatoes is a meal I enjoy all year 'round because it's cheap as hell and absolutely delicious. So bah! I'll take my cheap, appetizing meals over expensive and terrible meals any day.

Jim Weller said...

Newfoundland has a corned beef, cabbage and root vegetable dish quite similar to a New England boiled dinner and it is called Jiggs' Dinner in honour of the comic strip.