If you were to pin down the spot on my culinary being’s map from which my every journey extends, it’s the thriving burg of Meat and Potatoes. Yes, my culinary GPS has led me down blue highways and brown dirt roads, across lakes and oceans to oysters, sea urchins, and caponata, but this woman knows her roots.
My mother became an adventurous cook the year Lulu and Maurice Gibbs got married -- none of her kids will forget the first Boeuf Bourgignon -- but before that milestone year she was all about the spaghetti and meatballs, the meatloaf, and the Salisbury Steak. She didn’t like hamburgers, which may be why I can’t now make it through a week without three -- one great, one so-so and one off the 99 cent menu at Burger King, no fries. (I can be a slut for chain hamburgers but I’m as pure as a novice when it comes to fries; only the “holy crap good!” need apply.) Salisbury steak night provided a happy combination of a giant patty sans bun, with enough onion gravy to fill up a sauceboat and mashed potatoes a sure thing. Carrots were a shoo-in too, because she adapted her Swiss Steak technique -- vegetables braised in the sauce -- when she made Salisbury Steak.
I don’t have her recipe, and she now dines in the celestial halls off bijou servings of Peking duck, sole meuniere and savarins, so I can’t spend forty minutes talking food with her on Sunday night, as I did for thirty years. (My sister-in-law Hilary, a caterer, called her chats with my mother “Marilyn’s Recipe 911.”) But I don’t need her recipe, because I made it often enough for family dinners in my teens. Its elegance: six ingredients, if you include the carrots, a bowl, a spatula and a frying pan with a lid -- a twelve year old could, and did, make it.
Mix together a pound and a half of ground round, a half cup of breadcrumbs and a quarter of a package of Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix. Pat it out into a dinner-plate sized patty in the frying pan. Turn on the stove to commence the browning, then slice an onion.
Add a teaspoon of vegetable oil and sauté the onions until almost tender. Peel a few carrots and cut them into fine julienne; my mother had an immutable distaste for circle-cut carrots. Toss in the carrots, the rest of the package of Lipton’s and a cup and a half of water. Here, my mother would add the occasional heel of a bottle of Gamay. The soup mix ,water, wine and pan scrapings made for a gravy good enough to eat from piece of bread in the kitchen when I knew no one was around.
Cover, and cook for the length of the first act of the Callas/Gobbi recording of “Rigoletto,” which measured my parents’ cocktail hour. The only tricky part is flipping that disk without breaking it -- I used two spatulas. Brother Ian was the mashed potato prodigy of the family -- he focused that early testosterone into pounding potatoes and pushing the dairy.
If you tried this today your kids would like it a lot. You’d transcend the depressing bad rap conferred on the dish by college cafeterias and TV dinners -- loser food -- and appreciate it in a hip sixties groove. Enjoy it, while you put Blind Faith on the turntable, pull your hippie aunt’s granny square afghan over your knees, and grab a Fresca. Party like it’s 1969.
My father always pronounced it “Sallusburry,” not because he didn’t know the pronunciation of the great cathedral town, but because he’d met someone who didn’t, and that lady’s take on the name tickled him. I’d assumed that the dish was the product of post-war rationing, English mince and mashed, and the coming of age of cooking from a box, can or envelope.
I was wronger than mini marshmallows in a Waldorf Salad, dumber than a box of Ding Dongs, more misled than Harold Camping’s congregation. I was a continent and a century off, The name is not that of an English bishopric but an American doctor and health reformer who’d have 86ed the carrots and potatoes. It can be so fun to be so wrong.
It’s not like Dr. James Henry Salisbury (born Scott, New York 1823, died 1905, buried in Cleveland Ohio) started his career undereducated, flakey, or faddy. He earned a Bachelor of Natural Science from Rensselaer, in 1844, and worked for the New York Geological Survey until 1852, retiring as Principal Chemist. Like any common- or garden-variety Victorian overachiever, he’d picked up his MD in his spare time, from Albany Medical College in 1850. He was one of the earliest adopters of Germ Theory, later won the McNaughton Prize for his essay “Diphtheria and Scarlet Fever.” He was the very model of the modern -- well, nineteenth-century -- Science Guy.
But war changes everyone, and triage and trauma on the battlefields of the Civil War did its number on Dr. Salisbury, transforming him from an admired academician to a nutritional nutball. Napoleon might have said that an army travels on its stomach, but both armies on both sides of the conflict found that it also drags its sore ass. Reading about the losses from diarrhea and dysentery, one marvels that either side could command a standing army. Squatting is more like it.
The main killer diseases were those that resulted from living in unsanitary conditions. In 1861 typhoid caused 17 per cent of all military deaths, whereas dysentery and diarrhea caused a sick rate of 64 per cent of all the troops in the first year of the war. The following year this figure reached 99.5 per cent.
Union Army records show that a large number of its soldiers died from diseases caused by contaminated food and water. This included diarrhea (35,127), typhoid(29,336) and dysentery (9,431). Drinking from streams occupied by dead bodies or human waste and eating uncooked meat were the cause of large numbers of deaths. Regular soldiers who had been trained to be more careful about the food and water they consumed, were far less likely to suffer from intestinal disease that volunteer soldiers.” (Link here.)
In 1862, 99.5 percent of the men in blue and grey were doubled over from germs or viruses and dying by the thousands, many helped on their way by the most modern pharmacopeia, a mixture of mercury, chalk and botanicals called “blue powder” or “blue mass.” Here’s a description of its manufacture from an article in The Telegraph:
It was also prescribed as an antidepressant, and the Telegraph piece speculates that the outcome of the Civil Was could have been different had Lincoln not gone off his meds. He said blue mass made him “Cross.”
It was made by grinding and rolling mercury, liquorice root, rose water, honey, sugar and dead rose petals into pills. When American researchers used a 19th century recipe to recreate the drug they found that it would have delivered a daily dose of mercury that exceeded modern safety standards by nearly 9,000 times.
What a grim choice: death by diarrhea, or death by mercury poisoning! Salisbury was appalled, and when the war ended he devised the Salisbury Diet as a lifetime regimen for everyone, not simply soldiers. Dried corn and peas were the real villains of a soldier’s diet, he decided, and decreed that fruit, vegetables and starches should take up no more than a third of one’s daily diet. Carbs were to blame for everything from tumors to tuberculosis. He was a true believer that dentition was destiny and in 1888 he published The Relation of Alimentation and Disease, proposing that our teeth made us carnivores. It’s in that paper that his recipe appears. The good Doctor in his own words:
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.
Well, he didn’t overpack his ground beef, said “moderately well” not “well,” and promotes generosity with condiments. But Doc, where’s the gravy, the mashed potatoes, the carrots, the onions? Verboten -- after all you might bust out a new bunion if you ate too many vegetables!
(As important as the beef was the beverage on the Salisbury Regime: lashings of coffee or hot water with every meal. And sorry, readers with a curiosity about condiments, I couldn’t find much about Halford Sauce online except for this ad: “ Halford Leicestershire Sauce: The Most Perfect Relish of the Day. An Absolute Remedy for Dyspepsia. Invaluable to all Good Cooks. A Nutritious Combination for Children. Invaluable for Soups, Hashes, Cold Meats, and Entrees.”)
Anyone alert to the fad diets of the twentieth century will have twigged to the fact that Stillman and Atkins owe Salisbury big time. But unlike them, it wasn’t all about weight loss for J.H. He believed that this was the great dietetic cure for all that ailed us. He was called in to treat Brigadier General Ely Parker, the Seneca hero of the Civil War, who was dying by inches from diabetes. Salisbury took on Parker pro bono, but ultimately failed. I love what Parker said about Salisbury: “I am continuing the diet of beef and hot water. I see the Doctor often. He is very kind and good."
But I gotta ask: the propagator of Germ Theory didn’t consider that human and equine corpses, shit and vomit in the water and on the battlefield might have been the reason troops dropped their pants in the shrubs and died by thousands? Why didn’t he see that we have teeth that grind, like those of vegetarian ruminants, as well as the pointy canines of the meat-eating wolves? Why would he have thundered blame if his patty shared a plate with mashed potatoes and carrots? Perhaps his guts turned to water for years as he cared for the dying, and he attributed it to the legume diet he shared with thousands of soldiers. If my daily battlefield choice was to face a plate of pulse or starve, I might blame my bloats on the beans too.
How did Salisbury’s record hold up against the other messianic American food reformers of his era? Eighty-two was an excellent lifespan for anyone in the nineteenth century, especially a man who was theoretically in ketosis for a third of his life. Sylvester Graham, of the eponymous cracker, who preached against meat from his Presbyterian pulpit, died at 57. Horace Greeley, journalist, vegetarian, teetotaler and Presidential candidate died at 61, before the votes from the 1872 elections were even counted. (He lost in a landslide, poor guy.) C.W. Post shot himself in his sixty-eighth year. Only John Harvey Kellogg, the Baron of Battle Creek, outlived Salisbury -- he ate his final bowl of cornflakes and hung up his spoon when he was 91.
If you’d ordered Salisbury Steak at a lunch counter before 1916 your waitress would have responded “Say what?” It took another tragic war to put Salisbury’s name on the menu and into the freezer case, eleven years after his death. Just as my maternal great-grandfather, descendant of Pennsylvania Dutch Tories, changed his name from Maus to Moss during the anti-German sentiment of the First World War, the ancestors of the food nationalists who most recently gave us the Freedom Fry decided to rename a popular entrée. What blue plate special was de-Saxonized and renamed for Salisbury? The humble Hunnish Hamburger Steak. What a shame that neither the men at Manassas nor the soldiers of the Somme ever ate one in uniform.
Margaret McArthur, aka maggiethecat, author of the blog Cheap and Cheerful, cooks and tends her garden near Chicago. Her Daily Gullet piece "Eggs Enough and Time" appears in Best Food Writing 2009.