jeffreyw [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

From Health Food to Comfort Food: the History of the Salisbury Steak

Highlights:

  • Dr. J.H. Salisbury declared salisbury steak a health food in a late 19th century book.
  • A few years later, a woman named Elma Stuart wrote a book extolling the healing powers of Salisbury’s diet recommendations.
  • Salisbury and Stuart did not believe we should eat salisbury steak with mashed potatoes as we do today, calling them “indigestible.”
  • When Salisbury and Stuart published their books, German immigrants had already been eating a similar dish for centuries. 
  • During the 1950’s, TV dinners entered the market. One of the most popular TV dinner varieties – sold by Swanson – included salisbury steak with a side of potatoes.
  • Around the world, people in countries like Japan, Sweden, Russia, and Germany enjoy meat dishes similar to salisbury steak.
  • To cook salisbury steak, purchase ground beef raised on local farms in South Jersey.
  • Salisbury steak is surprisingly difficult to find on Jersey restaurant menus, but there are a few restaurants in our area offering the dish.

Dr. James Henry Salisbury

Before ‘low-carb diet’ entered the American vernacular, a physician from New York named Dr. James Henry Salisbury touted the benefits of eating low-fat, protein-rich foods. Salisbury believed the optimal human diet consisted of two parts meat to one part vegetable. Carbohydrate consumption, he argued, was the root cause of afflictions like heart disease, tuberculosis, and even mental illness.

But Salisbury didn’t just eschew bread and pasta. He also vilified vegetables. He even had a term for illness brought on by plant-based diets: vegetable dyspepsia. Salisbury believed we all possess “twenty meat teeth” and only “twelve vegetable teeth,” a finding he viewed as evidence favoring a protein-rich diet. In 1888, he set forth his diet recommendations in his book, The Relation of Alimentation and Disease.

Today, most people wouldn’t put the terms ‘ Salisbury steak’ and ‘health food’ in the same sentence. But, as part of his crusade against all-things-carb, Salisbury popularized the comfort food we all know today as Salisbury steak. (Notice I didn’t say invented the salisbury steak, as the dish had already been eaten around the world for centuries. More on that later.) Above all things edible, Salisbury thought beef singularly nutritious for the human body. In fact, he argued we could all stay healthy by consuming salisbury steak three times a day.

No arguments here.

Elma Stuart and the Healing Powers of Beef

In 1895, a woman named Elma Stuart published a book called, What Must I Do to Get Well? And How Can I Stay So? which advocated in favor of Salisbury’s diet recommendations. (I imagine Salisbury and Stuart as the nineteenth-century equivalent to quacks who, during late-night television infomercials, get rich by convincing desperate consumers they hold the secret cure to all that ails us.)

The recipes in Stuart’s book are divided into multiple parts. First, she offers advice “for the sick” who are already suffering. She then lists some recipes “for the seedy,” a term that referred not to trashy, bedbug-ridden motels, but to people who were “hovering on the borderland” of health and illness. Finally, Stuart addresses those who are already well and want to remain that way.

The beef recipes in Stuart’s book specify guidelines for selecting and preparing the beef used to cook Salisbury steak. Beef should be free of fat. The cow should be between the ages of four and six years when slaughtered. “Butter, pepper, salt, and mustard” should not be added until after the beef has finished cooking. Finally, the sick person can eat the beef “with a tea-spoon in his right hand and a dessert fork in his left!”

Go figure.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Elma Stuart specified that, in order to provide optimal health benefit, the beef for salisbury steak should come from a cow between the ages of four and six years.

Potatoes as a Salisbury Side

Neither Salisbury nor Stuart recommend we eat salisbury steak over mashed potatoes as most people do today. In fact, Stuart calls out mashed potatoes as one of the “foolishest” menu items a person could eat – dubbing them one of the “vain imaginings that have deluded mankind” – a pretty extreme stance to have about a mashed potato. Instead, she argues, we should eat baked potatoes because they are cooked more thoroughly and are therefore more “digestible.”

Photo by Hai Nguyen on Unsplash
Stuart and Salisbury believed potatoes should be eaten baked – not mashed.

TV Dinners and Salisbury Steak

So how did our modern take on salisbury steak – rich in buttery, flour-thickened gravy and served over mashed potatoes – ever enter American kitchens? Likely, this recipe change happened when the “TV dinner” was popularized in American culture around the 1950’s. In fact, one of Swanson’s first TV dinners included Salisbury steak. Potatoes were, and remain, a cheap, easy-to-make, filling commodity. (Plus – as we all know – they’re delicious with ground beef and gravy.)

Photo by: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jeepersmedia/14736658624
Hungry Man TV dinner. Photo by: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jeepersmedia/14736658624

Before Salisbury and Stuart

While Salisbury and Stuart may have been the first to popularize the supposed health benefits of minced steak, they weren’t the first to introduce the dish to America – or to the world. We also have German immigrants to thank for our modern conception of salisbury steak. By the time Salisbury published his book, Germans had already been eating a similar dish called Hamburg steak – often cooked with breadcrumbs and onion – for centuries. During the 1700’s, sailors from Germany introduced Hamburg steak to Americans at their bustling New York port.

German immigrants, published in Harper’s Weekly, (New York) November 7, 1874 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

‘Salisbury’ Steak Around the World

Today, Americans aren’t the only ones who cook up salisbury-esque steak. The Japanese enjoy hambagu, a meat and gravy dish made from minced beef and pork. Swedes make pannbiff seasoned with allspice and ginger. And Russians have buttery pozharsky, which is made from ground chicken in place of beef.

Swedish pannbiff Wolfgangus Mozart [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Salisbury Steak Recipe

On busy weeknights, I like to whip up salisbury steak in a cast-iron skillet with a side of buttery mashed potatoes from our Instant Pot. I toss a bag of steamable frozen peas in the microwave and spoon the steak gravy over top. Easy-peasy.

My own salisbury steak with mashed potatoes and steamed spinach

Here’s my recipe for fast Salisbury steak:

1 tbs butter

1 onion, sliced into rings

½ tsp salt

½ tbs Worcestershire sauce

1 ½ c water

½ c milk

1 tsp bouillon (I use Better than Bouillon)

¼ tsp black pepper

¼ tsp garlic powder

3-4 tbs flour

4 prepared hamburger patties

In a cast-iron skillet, saute onion on medium-high heat until nicely browned (about 10 minutes). Add Worcestershire sauce and cook for an additional minute. Remove onions from pan and set aside.

Sear burger patties on both sides and cook until burgers reach preferred temperature. Remove from pan and set aside.

Add milk and water to pan, scraping the meaty brown bits from the bottom. Add salt, Worcestershire sauce, bouillon, black pepper, and garlic powder. Bring to a boil.

While whisking gravy, slowly add flour a half tablespoon at a time and simmer until gravy reaches desired thickness.

Add burgers and onions back to the pan and serve mixture over mashed potatoes.

Where to Buy Local Ground Beef

For extra tender Salisbury steak, purchase fresh, local beef raised in South Jersey.

Here are some places in South Jersey where you can buy local (grass-fed, if desired) beef:

7th Heaven Farm (Tabernacle)

Bringhurst Fine Meats (Berlin)

Burlington County Farmers’ Market (Moorestown, seasonal)

Hough Family Farm (Southampton)

Rastelli Market (Marlton, Deptford, and Mullica Hill)

Whole Foods Market (Marlton)

Salisbury Steak in South Jersey

Finally, if you don’t feel like cooking at all, here are a couple South Jersey restaurants that offer Salisbury steak on their menus. I wasn’t expecting to have difficulty finding local diners that serve Salisbury steak, but the dish is surprisingly rare on Jersey menus.

Maybe time for a Make Salisbury Steak Cool Again campaign?

Aunt Bertha’s Kitchen (Berlin, Oaklyn)

Marlton Diner (Marlton)

And if you’re willing to travel over the bridge, Google reviewers report that this Philadelphia restaurant offers an especially tasty Salisbury steak:

Butter’s Soul Food (Philadelphia)

If you know of any other local restaurants serving salisbury steak, please mention it in the comments below. 

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