When people think of the “Deep South” they typically are thinking about Alabama and Mississippi.
Georgia has Atlanta and that airport with the really expensive turkey wraps. Louisiana talks funny and puts their strip clubs on main thoroughfares instead of hiding them in the industrial centers like they’re supposed to. North Carolina is about 93% banks at this point. Tennessee is where the region’s musical talent goes to wait tables. Arkansas and Missouri are too close to Texas and the Midwest, respectively. Kentucky is horse snobby. South Carolina has done a pretty decent job convincing the rest of the world that the whole state is Charleston and Myrtle Beach.
For whatever reason, when the rest of the nation thinks “unreconstructed” they think of the two states whose flagship university’s football teams will be squaring off in Oxford tomorrow afternoon.
Despite the fact that Alabama has a world class medical center smack near the middle and a bona fide hotbed of space exploring activity at the top and the fact that Mississippi has whatever it has, we are still considered by outsiders barren but for a few enviable food traditions and a handful of hard earned sociological cautionary tales. For the purposes of this post I’ve decided to focus on the former and make a dish that will be familiar to all involved.
The greatest Southern food tradition is Bar-B-Q, hands down. But it’s not the only one. If I remember properly, I got more hits than normally expected when I did meat-&-three style smothered pork chops. So let’s celebrate one of the steam table’s other great heroes and among those, what could be more Southern than the Salisbury Steak.
It turns out, quite a lot.
Dr. James Henry Salisbury (1823-1905) was born in New York. It looks like he spent his life alternating between his home state and Ohio. I can’t even find evidence that he ever made it further south than Cleveland. So this dish started out among Those Who Know Not How to Play Defense, Northern Chapter before finding its proper home.
Salisbury was a bit of a nutter in the mold of the great American Nutritional Savior Archetype later filled by such giants as Bill Kellogg and Sylvester Graham. But while Kellogg and Graham espoused the adoption of a purely vegetarian diet, Salisbury was an early ascetic of the paleo/low carb movement.
Vegetable, fruits, and starches, believed Salisbury, were full of poisons that led to “summer complaints” and that they should constitute no more than thirty percent of one’s diet. The rest? Salisbury Steak and hot water.
Not protein. Not red meat. Not steak. Only Salisbury Steak made with very lean, freshly ground or minced beef (he did allow for the occasional foray into mutton if circumstances required) and a refreshing mug or more of hot water, three times a day for the rest of your life.
I say “a bit” of a nutter because he was ahead of his times in other ways. He was among those working to prove that germs were responsible for many diseases and infections in 1849, and for that he was widely mocked at home and in Europe until he was vindicated in 1865. I imagine spending sixteen years as the butt of jokes for your scientific views only to be proved right in the end would pretty well inure someone to criticism of any further work.
He had adherents too. Readers of his great work, The Relation of Ailmentation and Disease, were convinced that they had found the cure to all manner of sufferings including arthritis, diabetes, tuberculosis, and arteriosclerosis to name a few.
Arguably his biggest fan, a woman named Elma Stuart who palled around with the novelist George Eliot, wrote a three hundred and ninety three page testimonial praising the all-meat and hot water regimen she adopted eleven years earlier (!) for curing her of her ailments (I’ve read that it is believed that modern medicine would diagnose her with fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome.) For the masochists among you, the full three hundred and ninety three pages are available here, but be forewarned. The first sentence include the phrase “indispensable examinations… of the blood, sputum, and other secretions.” That’s as far as I got.
The good Doctor’s recipe 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."
We are not going to do that. Our version will be right at home next to wasteful starches like mashed potatoes and useless carbs found in beer. It’ll do nicely with toxins found in a common side salad or the poisonous results of fermentation in a cheap Rhône red blend.
Salisbury Steak with Gravy
(Makes 4 servings)
1 lb. Ground Chuck
1 Medium Yellow Onion, Sliced
Amount of Sliced Mushroom equal to the amount of Yellow Onion
2-3 Garlic Cloves, Smashed
6-7 Springs Thyme, Leaves Picked
2 cups Dry White Wine
2 cups Beef Stock
2 tbsps. Flour or Corn Starch (I’ll explain)
Start by dividing the meat up into four roughly equal pieces and make thin patties. Salt both sides.
Pour a little olive oil in a Dutch oven, large sauce pan, or even an iron skillet (if you have one deep enough to contain the gravy) and heat over medium to medium high until the oil starts to smoke. Add the burgers and cook until med-rare. Remove and set aside.
With the meat out, drain the grease into an old can or whatever receptacle you keep on hand for such things, add a few more glugs of olive oil along with the onion, bring to a medium heat and sauté until the onions take on a golden color. Normally at this stage, I add a tbsp. of flour and mix in with onions so that the flour, which will eventually be the gravy thickener, browns a bit and adds another layer of flavor. This time I decided to skip that step and try something new. I regret skipping it. What I did was fine, but adding flour now is optimum. Your call.
Then add the mushrooms and cook, stirring until they are sweating, about five minutes.
Once the mushrooms are moist, add the garlic, let cook for a minute more, and then pour in the wine and add the thyme leaves. Start scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden or plastic spatula to free up those bits of beef that stuck to the bottom. They are amazingly flavorful and need to get into circulation.
When the wine starts to bubble, let it go another minute or so, stirring as needed, and then add the stock and let bubble, reducing for five to ten minutes.
If you added flour to the onions a few steps ago, ignore anything I write about corn starch. Corn starch was an experiment that went well, but not as well as tried and true flour. If you went with flour, check for thickness. If the gravy’s too thin add some of the remaining tbsp. of flour until you’re happy.
If you didn’t add flour, add a tbsp. of corn starch now and stir, adding more if needed.
Put the patties back into the pan, submerge as best as possible and reduce to a low simmer. Let them cook for twenty minutes, flipping them over at the half mark, stirring when necessary.
I served the steaks with a simple salad and some creamy mashed potatoes.
Oddly enough, the word “hamburger” had more or less taken over by the 1900 or so. Very few people were calling ground beef patties, on a bun or otherwise, anything else. Had it not been for the Germans getting bomb-y at the beginning of the twentieth century the name “Salisbury” might have been lost to culinary history. But the Germans did get bomb-y and that sparked a patriotic English renaming of things formerly referred to in German on both sides of the pond. The “Salisbury Steak” was the “Freedom Fries” of a bygone era.
Finally, I should note that beef was not Salisbury’s first attempt at a mono-food diet. He started with beans (you can imagine how that house must have smelled). Next he tried oatmeal. The third he hit upon beef, and that time was a charm, at least according to one doctor, a sizeable following, and of course, Elma Stuart.
So here’s to the third time being a charm. Down with the Rebel Ackbears. Enjoy the steaks. No injuries (both sides), and of course, Roll Tide.