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Long Live the Salisbury Steak, the Forgotten Dinner of Champions

Though it was once America’s favorite dinner — and thought to be highly ‘nutritive’ — the Salisbury steak now conjures up images of hospitals food and nauseating cafeterias. How did such a beefy behemoth fall from gastronomical grace?

“That’s it, Dada,” my seven-year-old daughter said to me the other day as we were walking through Walmart’s frozen food section. When I looked back, she was pointing to a box of ice-cold Salisbury steaks and explaining that this was the food she was talking about last week when she came home from school starving. She told me that all she had to eat that day was hummus, as the main meal in the cafeteria didn’t look good to her. When I asked her what it was, she said she didn’t know, referring to it only as “some kind of meat.”

A week later in Walmart, I was both surprised and offended. Thirty years ago, Salisbury steak grossed the hell out of me when I was in school, and I would have thought with all the nutritional progress we’ve made, that it would have been long since retired to the ash heap of history. Yet, they were still serving it at my daughter’s school. 

Later on, though, after my daughter was in bed and I had a moment to think, I began to feel a little bad about my immediate disregard for Salisbury steak. Why should I dismiss its amorphous, proteinous glory out-of-hand? Sure, it has a reputation for being “mystery meat,” but maybe there’s more to Salisbury steak than meets the eye (or the plate).

After a bit of research, I quickly realized that Salisbury steak didn’t originate in Salisbury, Maryland, as I’d assumed. Instead, it was named for a doctor and nutritionist named James Henry Salisbury, who garnered some attention during the Civil War for curing Union soldiers of diarrhea by feeding them protein and hot water. Among the limited diets he offered them was “muscle pulp of beef,” which was basically ground beef put into a patty, then covered in gravy. It was pretty much a hamburger without the bun, which is basically what Salisbury steak is today (though it generally has more meatloaf-like fillers such as egg, onions, vinegar, mustard, Worcestershire sauce and breadcrumbs). 

Twenty years after the Civil War, Salisbury began to release his findings from years of food experimentation, and the term “Salisbury steak” was born, first appearing in print in 1885. In 1888, he released a book called The Relation of Alimentation and Disease, which Smithsonian Magazine credits with setting off a health-food craze with Salisbury steak at its center. 

From The Sun in New York City, January 17, 1885

Nowadays, of course, we know that Salisbury steak is far too high in calories, fat and sodium to be considered “health food,” but back in the 1880s, it did have one big thing going for it that may have offered some health benefits. “Back then, people were boiling everything, and B vitamins are all water-soluble,” MEL’s resident health and fitness expert Ian Douglass explains. “If you cook meat in water, almost all of the vitamin B content is gone.” But with Salisbury steak, the beef was grilled, which meant it retained some of the B vitamins. Additionally, it was served in its own gravy, which also had B vitamins

In the early 20th century, Salisbury steak became an American staple, and since it was cheap, easy to prepare and could be supplemented with fillers, it became popular in cafeterias and in the military. It even appeared in the 1904 Navy cookbook under the banner of “Hamburger Steak.” While it’s not entirely clear, it seems that “Salisbury steak” and “hamburger steak” may have been interchangeable names for the dish until World War I, when we started to drop some German names — like “Hamburg” — from our vocabulary thanks to anti-German war sentiment. The military is also where Salisbury steak began to get its reputation as “mystery meat” thanks to the aforementioned fillers. 

From the 1904 Navy cookbook

For the first half of the 20th century, Salisbury steak was doing just fine as a perfectly acceptable dish for the American family. But in the 1950s, Salisbury steak suddenly exploded with the new food trends of the times. In 1952, there was even canned Salisbury steak, which my brain cannot even fathom without a slight gag response.

Then, in 1954, the TV dinner was invented, which would raise Salisbury steak to new heights of glory (before later dragging it down when TV dinners faded in popularity). Dan Skinner, the manager of brand communications at Conagra Brands — which owns companies like Banquet and Hungry Man — explains, “Salisbury steak is a quick, easy, high-protein meal. From the start of the frozen meal era in the mid-1950s, Salisbury steak was appealing for those reasons, as well as the relative ease with which it could be frozen and prepared.” 

It could also be reheated in the same container as a side of vegetables and mashed potatoes, which made it perfect for TV dinners and popular with working- and middle-class families who didn’t always have time to whip up a meal. 

A package of a Banquet Salisbury steak meal from 1967, courtesy of Dan Skinner

Although frozen foods are still popular today, the portioned-out “TV dinners” of yesteryear have been declining in popularity since the 1980s. And since Salisbury steak had become synonymous with that kind of meal, its traction also began to decline around that time. “I’d think it would have to do with changing American tastes,” says food historian Jennifer Jensen Wallach, who authored How America Eats: A Social History of U.S. Food and Culture. “There are more frozen meals than ever, but the original varieties are overshadowed by everything from Thai food to vegan meals to Indian food. Americans have become more interested in ‘sophisticated’ food, ‘foreign’ food and ‘healthy’ food, none of which apply to Salisbury steak.” 

Even Skinner, whose company sells several different types of Salisbury steak, admits that Salisbury steak has a reputation for being a little dated. He does add, though, “While Salisbury Steak isn’t the most exciting thing on the menu, it’s reliable comfort food, and for many consumers, that gives the dish enduring appeal.”

As for the future, is there any chance the Salibury steak can rise again? 

According to chef Dennis Littley it can, so long as people use good ingredients and put the right amount of care into its preparation. “To begin with, you want to use a decent ground beef, which means something lean, like 90 percent lean meat, 10 percent fat,” he tells me. “You can also use ground chuck or ground sirloin.” You want to use the right amount of fillers as well so that the meal doesn’t fall apart; thus, he cautions people to closely follow a recipe, rather than trying to wing it with breadcrumbs and condiments. “Don’t overmix it, either,” he says. “That’ll make the meat tough.” 

By combining his recipe or one like it with freshly-made mushroom gravy, Littley says a Salisbury steak shouldn’t just taste like a hamburger with gravy on it. Rather, “it should be more tender and moist, and it should have its own distinct flavor. You won’t taste ground beef as much as the overtone of Worcestershire sauce and the mustard in it. In fact, you should take a bite of it and go, ‘This isn’t what I expected.’”

To me, that actually sounds pretty good, and maybe worth trying. Or perhaps I’ll try one of the upscale recipes from a guy like Gordon Ramsay. That said, I’m still not subjecting my daughter to whatever Salisbury steak “mystery meat” they’re serving in her school cafeteria. It’s seemingly only something Dr. James Henry Salisbury could be proud of.