As a kid, Salisbury steak to me was something to avoid in the school cafeteria’s lunch line, which wasn’t really hard to do. I mostly brought my lunch from home anyway, except on pizza days because pizza was one of my favorite foods. It still is, though my taste in toppings has grown up some, and my tolerance for grease has lessened. The school cafeteria’s pizza was definitely greasy; the Salisbury steak was worse. It had the look, texture, and I imagine, the taste of soggy cardboard soaked with grease, and it swam in gelatinous sea of coagulated brick-red gravy. The smell was enough to make my stomach flip-flop. My brother loved the stuff…but then again, he loved the cafeteria’s “fishwiches” too; sometimes there’s no accounting for taste.
How could a meat-like substance bathed in greasy gravy be even remotely healthy? Most likely it wasn’t. The lunch-line’s version of the dish was a far cry from the original. A 19th century English and American physician, Dr. James H. Salisbury was one of the earliest proponents of the idea that diet is directly related to health. He asserted our teeth were designed to chew meat; other foods such as vegetables and starches were actually poisonous to our bodies, and were possibly the cause of heart disease, tumors, mental illness, and tuberculosis. Eating more lean meat was the prevention, and Salisbury steak, eaten 3 times a day and washed down with hot water, was the cure.
From his book “The Relation of Alimentation and Disease”, written in 1888, his recipe for the meat dish named for him is as follows:
"Eat the muscle pulp of lean beef made into cakes and broiled. This pulp should be as free as possible from connective or glue tissue, fat and cartilage.....The pulp should not be pressed too firmly together before broiling, or it will taste livery. Simply press it sufficiently to hold it together. Make the cakes from half an inch to an inch thick. Broil slowly and moderately well over a fire free from blaze and smoke. When cooked, put it on a hot plate and season to taste with butter, pepper, salt; also use either Worcestershire or Halford sauce, mustard, horseradish or lemon juice on the meat if desired."
Muscle pulp, whether or not it’s free of glue tissue, sounds about as appetizing to me as the soggy cardboard the school served. Sometime long after Dr. Salisbury died, and after elementary school cafeterias started serving healthier food; infinitely more appetizing than either the good doctor’s or the school’s versions, comes “Mom’s Salisbury Steak”.
There are probably more recipes for Salisbury steak as there are kids in a school cafeteria, but all versions have a few things in common: the “steak” is ground beef formed into a patty; it’s served with a cream, brown, or tomato-based gravy; noodles or mashed potatoes typically round out the meal – a rather ironic twist considering Dr. Salisbury’s contention that starch was poisonous to the body, and Salisbury steak was the cure.
Mom gave me her recipe early in our marriage, and for all these years, it’s proved to be an easy, delicious, and favorite meal.
“Mom’s” Salisbury Steak
1 ½ lbs of ground beef
Dash of pepper
1 egg – slightly beaten
1/3 cup of flour
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 can condensed French onion soup
4 oz chopped mushrooms
½ cup bread crumbs
¼ cup ketchup
¼ cup water
½ teaspoon mustard
In a mixing bowl, sprinkle meat with pepper. Add egg, bread crumbs and 1/3 cup of soup. Mix thoroughly. Shape meat into patties (or meatballs). Dip lightly in flour and shake off excess. Heat margarine in frying pan, brown patties on all sides, then set aside. Combine ketchup, water, Worcestershire sauce and mustard in the pan, and simmer uncovered. Thicken with 1 tablespoon of flour and remaining soup, stirring until well blended. Spoon over meat and garnish with mushroom slices. Return to simmer, covered, for about 30 minutes.
Here would be a good place for a photo of the finished product; a picture of an appetizing Salisbury steak artfully arranged on a bed of egg noodles, let’s say, with a side of green beans, and maybe a slice of crusty bread. It’d look mouthwatering, enticing you to try the recipe in your own kitchen.
Unfortunately, you’ll have to trust me; I have no photo as proof that Mom’s recipe makes such a meal. Way back in October, I went to the beach during a particularly strong windstorm. My camera and I were immediately pelted with spray from the lake and blowing sand; it felt like thousands of tiny pin pricks on my bare face and hands. The gulls didn’t seem to mind wind blowing hard enough to tear down the newly erected snow fencing, but my camera minded a lot. In defiance it froze on whatever setting it was on at the time….which is obviously not the “make food look appetizing” setting.
Therefore, I will leave you with a photo of Lake Michigan that windy, cold and wet day. Her recipe may not live up to Dr. Salisbury’s claim that his dish is a cure for mental illness, but Mom’s Salisbury Steak is certainly a comforting cure for cold, blustery day.