What’s At Steak.

The other night my wife asked for Salisbury steak, the only thing to ever come out of Salisbury except for Stonehenge which, admittedly, doesn’t count, because Stonehenge has never left Salisbury and the stones that form it are from Wales anyway. And Salisbury steak isn’t really steak, either, but ground beef that’s usually swimming in brown gravy and, at least in my experience, is used to hide a great big hunk of gristle, although if it’s properly prepared this is placed in the exact middle so you can get halfway through it before you hit the chewy, tasteless center.

According to culinary history the Salisbury steak dates back to the 19th century and in fact all Salisbury steak served in American households up to 1987 was made in the 19th century and was among the first foods to be frozen commercially with the invention of electric refrigeration in the 1890s. Over one million servings of Salisbury steaks were placed, along with peas and cubed carrots, a cup of surplus potatoes that had been dried, ground into powder, bound back into a dried, solid form, used as classroom chalk, re-collected, reconstituted with water, and seasoned gently with salt, and a scoop of baked apples from the disastrous Apple Surplus that afflicted Washington State in the summer of 1899, all of which was placed  in aluminum trays which were then sealed in cardboard boxes and placed in a storage facility in the Sierra Nevada mountains. They were then released in the early 1950’s with the widespread popularity of the television finally giving these “TV dinners” a reason to be served and, with the invention of the television tray, a place to be served.

Since the 1980’s the popularity and consistency of Salisbury steak has waxed and waned, with one of the principle ingredients from 1989 to 1991 being wax, and, from 1993 to 1994, wane, an unstable substance that disappears as soon as it’s exposed to air or anything else.

While it remains a staple of the frozen food industry to many a comfort food, particularly for those who grew up in generations where a TV dinner was a nice way to give one or both parents a break from cooking, and, for younger generations it’s a “retro dish” that, unlike some of its earlier versions, is often made with actual beef. Ironically the future of Salisbury steak may also be entirely meatless with vegetarian and even vegan versions becoming available and food scientists experimenting with various substances, including uncured, natural latex, magma, and recycled Nickelback CDs to produce the texture and lack of taste provided by the traditional gristle center.

What else does the future of Salisbury steak hold? It’s difficult to say but when I asked my wife how hers was she said, “Pretty good,” a description of Salisbury steak that hasn’t been heard since the construction of Stonehenge.

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  1. BarbaraM

    Not a fan of Stouffer’s I see. And you forgot to mention the tiny pieces of bone that make you wonder if you’ve broken a tooth! My husband used to say that they were added so that you’d know it was “real” meat.

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Not a fan of Stouffer’s Salisbury steak, anyway–they do a pretty good mac and cheese and in a pinch if I can’t find anything else better I’ll settle for the fishtangle, which also takes me back to school lunch. Back before I had taste.

  2. M.L. James

    Meatloaf or Salisbury Steak? That is the question. Either way, make sure they are juicy and that the Salisbury Steak has a yummy brown gravy (Cognac makes it super yummy!) Gotta make them from good old 80/20 and then elevate, elevate, elevate! TV dinners? Uhm… do I sound like a snob if I say, no thanks! I do love Stouffer’s mac and cheese! Fascinating and humorous background on that ubiquitous childhood comfort food! Thanks, Chris! Mona

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Adding cognac sounds like an excellent way to elevate even packaged Salisbury steak. There’s nothing snobbish about that at all. Hey, if you can elevate a TV dinner go for it, and there are times when it beats cooking. I’m just not sure anyone actually cooks Salisbury steak. Heck, have you ever seen it on a restaurant menu?


    I’m glad I opened this up today, Chris, and I think this tasty post is going to age well.

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I’m glad I opened up this very warm comment from you, Ann.


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