When one thinks of Salisbury steak, it’s not with awe. Seen at old-school buffets and gracing countless TV dinner frozen meals, it’s not a glamorous-sounding piece of meat. Yet, this beef patty is more than just a cheap steak imposter. Salisbury steak was part of a health trend to cure illness during the Civil War. Talk about the unexpected, right? Why was Salisbury steak associated with health?
By the time New York native Doctor James Henry Salisbury worked at a Union camp in Ohio, the reality of illness was at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Both Union and Confederate soldiers had to dodge more bacteria than actual bullets. Illness (specifically dysentery) swept through camps, killing many, leaving countless men incapacitated, and weakening those men who would fight on the front lines.
While germ theory wouldn’t come to light until after the Civil War (separating toilets from clean drinking water and washing hands between surgeries was still not a thought), the doctor correlated diet as a part of health. In actuality, the doctor wasn’t off target because how one eats does correlate with the body’s health. Salisbury believed that the fermentation of sugars in starches, fruits, and vegetables was the cause of wartime camps’ dysentery illness. Some extent of this thinking is sound, as bacteria thrive with sugar-derived foods.
To test his dietary theories, Salisbury did diet experiments on himself, other men, and hogs to determine the symptoms brought on by certain foods. He would eat diets of solely hardtack and coffee, or beans and coffee, and found that eating these war rations a few consecutive days brought one weakness, tingling of the limbs, and dysentery. A diet of his meats, green vegetables, coffee, and warm lemon water would reverse the symptoms brought on by the camp diets.
Salisbury believed that fruits and vegetables should only make up one-third of the human diet, and more of a percentage would bring about severe illness. He also thought that humans had more carnivorous teeth, hence, humans needed to eat a more meat-forward diet.
After the War, Salisbury published his findings saying that his meat-forward low-carb diet was the cure for a slew of human illnesses — and this low-carb diet talk is a century before Atkins. In Salisbury’s publishing, he extensively goes about describing the instructions for the star of his diet — beefsteaks. It was to be made of the leanest of muscle meat with the connective tissue and fat removed. A side dish of oysters, fish, or turkey would pair with the steak, and hot water would also precede every meal.
The doctor himself never called his meat steaks Salisbury steak and was only done so after another doctor, William Pepper, mentioned eating Salisbury’s steak as a way to cure epilepsy during an 1884 lecture. Gradually, the term appeared in newspapers and spread further.
During its inception, Salisbury steak was simply ground meat with salt and pepper. It was only over time, through countless adaptations and mirroring of Hamburger steak, that Salisbury steak got its brown gravy with its now-traditional onion and mushroom garnish. During the World Wars, Americans dropped the many German-sounding words, abandoning the usage of the Hamburg steak completely, and calling meat patties coated in gravy only Salisbury steak. The once pure beefsteak patty was cut with milk and breadcrumbs and resembled individual meatloaf more than the original all-meat diet cure.
Now Salisbury steak is seen as nostalgic comfort food, paired with macaroni and cheese or mashed potatoes. It’s far from the health-food, illness-curing concept of the 19th century!SKM: below-content placeholder