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To reach Rocky Mountain National Park, travelers arriving in Denver, Colorado can drive along the base of the Front Range through Boulder or head north on Interstate 25 then west through the city of Longmont. The town’s name is inspired by the majestic peak that dominates the western horizon: Long’s Peak—which at 14,259 feet is the park’s tallest mountain.
A bustling downtown Main Street offers many upscale drinking, dining, and shopping options, but Longmont maintains a central core of old school businesses that service the community. One of these is the iconic meat market on the corner of 9th and Coffman, one block from Main Street. Your Butcher Frank is a shop with a mid-century vibe, from its logo and ambience to its men in white shirts, red ties, and red aprons who busily greet customers and offer advice on cuts of meat.
Frank Occhiuto opened the shop in 1980 and his son took it over. Ron Lamb and Lee Westcott started working there in 1989 and eventually bought the business in 1998. They specialize in providing the knowledgeable service that is not often available today when typical consumers opt for supermarket meats sold in plastic-wrapped packages.
Both men work in the shop, along with five other full-time employees and several part-timers, but it is Lee Westcott who is especially busy at this time of year as he gets ready for the annual corned beef March madness that comes with the St. Patrick’s Day holiday. He will prepare the brine and soak 60 three- to five-pound pieces of brisket in three 40-gallon barrels for two weeks, keeping a close eye on them to ensure that they are submerged in the natural brine solution until properly cured.
“There are no nitrites or ‘pink salt’ in the mix,” says Lee Westcott, “just four ingredients: Kosher salt, allspice, vinegar and molasses.” This results in a finished product that is not the customary bright pink. When cooked, this corned beef looks more the color of a pot roast with a firmer texture due to the vinegar, but with the haunting sweet and salty flavor of corned beef.
Lee Westcott’s annual ritual has deep roots that tie together early methods of food preservation, trade wars and tax incentives, and the allure of an Emerald Isle that captivates Americans every March.
The term “corned beef” originated in 17th century England and refers to the “corns” or kernels of salt that were used to preserve meat prior to refrigeration. But the curing of beef with salt originated in Ireland in Celtic times, a thousand years earlier. In Ireland at that time, cattle were a sign of wealth and only eaten by royalty. The animals were used to plough the fields and were revered for their milk, which was used for butter and cheese called “whitemeats,” the primary source of food on the island. Cows were only killed when they were too old to work or produce milk. The beef pieces were preserved with “sea ash” made from burned seaweed and buried in a hole in a peat bog to save for a special celebration.
The neighboring (and conquering) English were much bigger beef eaters than the Irish whose main meat protein was pork, especially bacon and ham. But they were unable to raise enough cattle in England in the mid-17th century to supply their growing population. Irish cattle were imported and became a commodity, losing their revered status. Trade war ensued and British cattle breeders lobbied the government to pass two Cattle Acts, one in 1663 to prohibit the Irish cattle flooding the British market and one in 1667 that excluded the import of live animals. This tax incentive sparked the birth of the Irish salted beef trade since the tax on salt in Ireland was one tenth that of England.
Salted beef ruled the Irish international trade market for the next century, until the American Revolution. The city of Cork dominated, shipping out half of the country’s salted beef to growing markets in New York and Philadelphia as well to British colonies in the West Indies. But corned or salted beef still was not on tables in Ireland as a regular offering. Bacon was in the pot with the cabbage, along with potatoes that were brought in by the British from South America in 1580. Potatoes became an Irish staple that grew easily and caused the population of Ireland to swell from 1.5 million in 1600 to over 8 million in 1840, just before the Potato Famine. That disaster drove more than a million people to emigrate to America where opportunity—and food—was abundant. These new immigrants were hungry for a new life and that life included the taste of their homeland—corned beef—which they could now afford to buy.
The first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in New York City in 1762, organized by the Irish soldiers in the British Army. A century later it was a widespread occurrence. President Lincoln’s Inaugural Dinner on March 4, 1861 featured corned beef, cabbage, and parslied potatoes in a nod to the Irish Americans he championed as his devoted staff.
When asked whether corned beef would serve as a typical St. Patrick’s Day dinner in Ireland, Ballybofey resident Olivia Scanlon was very clear: “No, brisket wouldn’t really be known here at all. St. Patrick’s Day tradition may be bacon ribs or ham fillet with cabbage and spuds, of course. Or an Irish (lamb) stew. Very tasty. Just don’t forget to wash it all down with a pint of the black and white stuff or a wee whiskey.”
When asked about his own menu for the holiday, Lee Westcott grinned and admitted, “We have corned beef and cabbage every St. Patrick’s Day, and each year my wife and I say, ‘We should have this more often.’ It’s so good. Why wait all year?”
Your Butcher Frank offers a full array of pork, poultry, and beef cut to order as well as milk from the adjacent Longmont Dairy in glass bottles. There is a wide selection of specialty foods: sauces, marinades, salsas, and local Boulder potato chips that are worth the calories. Lee Westcott reckoned that the Club and Italian sandwiches are big sellers in the shop’s busy take-out deli, but East Coast transplants are partial to the pastrami. Unsurprisingly, beef is the most popular counter item in this cow-centric town, but holidays generally lead people to think outside their typical menus. If a Shepherd’s Pie is what you crave on St. Patrick’s Day, the Colorado lamb is especially tasty and available in a freezer case that stocks many unusual items including oxtail, tripe, sweetbreads, pheasant, capon and Rocky Mountain Oysters.
Folks at the Longmont Visitors Center can help you plan your visit to this city, recently named the “#1 Boomtown in America” on CNBC.com.
Visit between April and November for the Longmont producer-only farmers market held at the Boulder County Fairgrounds at 9595 Nelson Road. While there, check out other activities at the arena, which include target shooting horseback riders, the Front Range Agility dog club trials, and barrel racing, all free to watch. Check out the Fairgrounds calendar for specific dates and events.