The Legend of Salisbury Steak

Salisbury steak is a wondrous thing. When I was a kid, and astronauts were roaming around space, the idea of a TV dinner, the convenience, the engineering, the efficiency, a meal so perfectly contained in a compartmentalized aluminum container that doubled as both package and plate with no dishes to wash and no leftovers to refrigerate ­– it all just made me smile. Still does.

As beautiful as the idea of a semi-instant dinner custom made to eat while watching the Wide World of Sports, an Apollo rocket launch, Bonanza or Sanford and Son could be, the invention of the Salisbury Steak was even more special, perhaps because it felt like someone in England had officially christened a hamburger patty with a crown of gravy and turned it into royalty. The truth was less lofty as I found out last Monday while visiting a café in East Texas.

“Salisbury steak was invented by Dr. J.H. Salisbury who died in 1905,” said William, a cook wearing what appeared to be most of a Salisbury steak on his once-white apron, as if he had been slapped by one while running through a ketchup and mustard rainstorm. “There’s been a Salisbury steak in this country since around 1897. Germany, Russia, England and Hawaii have their own versions, but it all started with Dr. Salisbury.”

“So he just invented it by slathering a burger patty with gravy?” I asked. “That’s all it took to get such attention back then?”

“Yes sir,” said William. “Didn’t take much back in the day. Hey, somebody invented mac ‘n cheese by just, well, you know, putting cheese on some old tough noodles.”

“How do you know so much about this stuff?” I asked.

“I’m a food historian,” he said. “Amateur, but still know my history.”

I watched him cook my Salisbury steak and longed for him to serve it on an aluminum tray, but it came on a chipped plate with mashed potatoes, enough gravy to drown a good-sized rodent and a side of green beans. Then it hit me to test his knowledge.

“So tell me how MoonPies got their name?” I said, knowing the answer, but putting on my best Alex Trebek face.

He did not skip a beat.

“Well, back in Ireland, they used to make hoecakes, and one day a man named Leonardo Marsh, the Duke of Larnkirk whipped up a frothy cream he called marshmallow,” he said. “The Duke sandwiched it between two hoecakes. Now he loved to eat these things late at night while his wives were all asleep. And before he died, people started calling them MoonPies.”

“Really?” I said earnestly.

“Yes,” he nodded. “And when the Irish came to the South, they naturally brought their MoonPies with them and that’s how it all happened.”

I ate my Salisbury Steak in silence while he worked the lunch counter. When I finished, I had to tell him what I did for a living.

“William, you know I work for MoonPie and that’s not exactly the way MoonPies started,” I said.

“Does it really matter?” he smiled. “You bought the Salisbury steak. That’s what matters.”

Before leaving I told him the real MoonPie story. He laughed and slapped my shoulder.

“Mister, that’s the biggest crock of hooey I’ve ever heard,” he said. Hey, you want some Pound cake? You know how it got its name, right?”

I did not order the pound cake or stay to hear his story. When I left, he was telling a family about the real meaning of the word “casserole.” It just about killed me not to stay and hear his tale.

“You remember Mama Cass?” he said. “Well, she loved to mix up different stuff in a big dish.”

The door slammed behind me. The family listened, chewing. William’s stories might not have been true, but he did make a fine Salisbury steak. Before cranking my truck, I Googled Salisbury steak. He was telling the truth. So I walked back in and asked him to repeat the story about casserole.

“Okay, there was a dentist named Winston Cassidy,” he said. “Lived down in south Georgia. He used to go to church socials all the time and wanted a way to get rid of his leftovers.”

It was a totally different story than what he had started telling the family when I left.

“How about Mama Cass?” I asked.

“She’s a fine singer, ain’t she?” he said, dropping fries into boiling oil.

“Yes she is,” I said.

“Monday, Monday,” he sang. “Can’t trust that day.”

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