the grace of salisbury steak

salisbury steak I

I once knew a girl named Grace.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. I didn’t really know her. I sat across from her in Mr. Lester’s fifth-grade class. She knew most of the math problems we figured out on the chalkboard. She had an odd, intermittent giggle, like helium escaping from a small balloon slowly. And when she did smile, which wasn’t often, she tilted her head to the side, as though it would slide off her face and disappear.

Mostly, though, I saw that she was different than the rest of the class. Her small beige face hidden by giant grandmother glasses, Grace wore handmade dresses, patchworked with crooked squares of paisley or polka dots. The hems dangled at odd angles, puckered from quick sewing. Her socks often bunched just above her chunky, sensible shoes, the elastic unraveling at her ankles. And often, she smelled faintly of pee, as though she had wet the bed in the middle of the night and ran out the door for school, disheveled and late.

Often, I felt different than the rest of the class as well. Bookish, with equally large glasses as Grace, but in then-fashionable soda-pop orange, I hid behind my books and watched everyone else. My progress report at the beginning of the year suggested that I try to read 25 books that year. The copy of the end-of-the-year report, in smudged mimeographed ink, reads “Shauna has read 178 books this year!” Most of the time during tests, kids on either side of me tried to crane their necks to look at my paper. I just curled my arm around the vocabulary quiz and scribbled furiously, annoyed that this was when they wanted to be my friend.

But I had bursts of assertive energy, like when I demanded that my fourth-grade teacher allow me to play softball with the boys during P.E., instead of skipping rope with the girls. (Jumping up and down on the same patch of grey cement, underneath the awnings outside the door of our classroom, seemed like infuriating monotony to me.) I clutched a few friends to my side, mostly the rest of the Math Olympiad team, or the girls who fought with me over who could sit in the yellow beanbag in the sunlit corner to read our Beezus and Ramona books. (I read Of Human Bondage that year, although I can’t claim I understood a word.) I wasn’t as alone as Grace.

Grace moved in her own small circle, skirting the edges of the classroom before leaving for the day. Once, my parents drove us down a considered-dangerous street in Pomona, and my mother pointed out a house. The lawn looked as though it had been bitten down and the tips burned by the sun. The house sat slumped, small and worn down at the edges. On the lawn, a giant, hand-painted wooden sign: “Tarot cards read here.” My mother said, “That’s where your friend Grace lives.” I peered at it, hard, trying to comprehend what it must be like to live there, with only a mother, with such an embarrassing sign emblazoning the front. I looked down as we drove away.

Until a few days ago, that’s how I felt about Salisbury steak, as well.

My only memory of Salisbury steak is a plump hunk of meat sitting in pale gravy, side by side in plastic with bright orange macaroni and cheese, both of them overheated and bubbling over the tray. My family and I sat eating, each of us with a metal tv tray, as we watched Happy Days, and then Laverne and Shirley. (The Chef and I can still sing the theme song to the last one, today.)

I didn’t sit there disdaining the meal. I loved tv dinners at the time — all that fat and salt. But Salisbury steak was my least favorite. Instead, when we did have tv dinners (not every night by any means, but in a regular fashion), my hands clapped over the fried chicken dinner, with a spoonful of mashed potatoes, a small gathering of lukewarm corn, and the volcanic cherry dessert that resided on the top. Thank goodness I waited until the end for that. When I tried to eat dessert first, I burned the roof of my mouth into shreds.

Later, I fell in love with French bread pizzas we slid into the microwaves and waited for them to twirl into bubbling-cheese heat. Much later, I forced myself to buy some lean and healthy tv dinners, trying to lose weight, not knowing I was eating a salt-lick’s worth of sodium with every small tray full of tepid food.

But Salisbury steak? I knew that one was the cheapest. It tasted of it too.

Around here, Salisbury steak has been only a joke. Whenever someone mentions it, the Chef intones, in his best Darth Vader voice, “Salisbury steak.” He’s imitating Chef on South Park, who was killed, and then brought alive as a mechanical Chef, along with James Earl Jones’s voice. Whenever he says it, we laugh.

The other day, as we filmed the mushroom gravy video, we started talking about what we would eat with all that leftover gravy. Pasta? Roast beef? “Salisbury steak,” intoned the Chef, joking.
“What the heck is Salisbury steak, anyway?”
We raced to look it up, in cookbooks and online. Like most foods with proper nouns for names, it has a funny history. But looking at the photographs, we both thought, “It looks like meatloaf, in a patty.”
“Let’s make some.”
So we did.

The Chef plunked down a plate on the table, so I could take a photograph of the seared meat, the quartered mushrooms, the smudge of gravy across them both. We waited. And then we dug in with our forks. And to both our surprises, we loved it.

“I could eat this all day,” he said to me, just after finishing a bite.
“Me too. Why haven’t we eaten this before?”

Granted, we made it with local grass-fed beef and fresh herbs. We also cooked it to medium heat. (All the Salisbury steaks for tv dinners had to be cooked to charred, to make sure no one grew sick.) But this was a tender piece of meat, threaded through with fresh herbs and the satisfying taste of onions sautéed slowly. It tasted fresh, not heavy. We realized we had never really eaten Salisbury steak before. Anything in a tv dinner tray isn’t really food. This was food, made in our kitchen, the baby sitting in the sunlit corner in her highchair, watching us cook and banging happily with her hand.

And it was, by far, the cheapest meal of the week.

Some foods deserve a second look.

I wish that I had really known Grace.

salisbury steak II

Salisbury Steak

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 medium onion, peeled and fine chopped
1/2 cup fine-chopped mushrooms
1 teaspoon garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1 teaspoon fine-chopped fresh sage
kosher salt and cracked black pepper
1 1/2 pound ground beef
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon fine-chopped fresh rosemary
1/2 cup breadcrumbs (we used Trader Joe’s brown rice bread, made into crumbs)

Sautéing the mushrooms. Bring a large sauté pan to heat. Pour in the oil. Tumble in the mushrooms, onions, and garlic. Stir them around a bit, intermittently. When the mushrooms and onions start to brown a bit, add the sage. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat. Allow the mixture to cool.

Making the steak. Combine the mushroom mixture with the ground beef, eggs, rosemary, and breadcrumbs. Season with salt and pepper beneath your fingers (maybe about 1 teaspoon of each. Use your own senses). Make into oblong patties, about 1 inch thick, each.

Searing the steak. Bring the sauté pan to medium-heat again. Pour in the remaining oil. Put the patties into the hot oil. Cook about 3 to 4 minutes, or until the patties have grown a lovely brown. Flip them over. Brown on the other side. Cook until you have reached desired temperature for how you like your meat cooked. (We like medium for these, or an internal temperature of about 160°.)

Serve with mushroom gravy (see this video if you would like to learn this) and sautéed onions. You can also grill these, if the weather where you are allows it.

Feeds 4

40 comments on “the grace of salisbury steak

  1. Adrienne

    That was a lovely post, Shauna. I haven’t thought of Salisbury steak since elementary school, but I certainly remember the progress reports with how many books I had read, the enormous glasses (mine were pink and bifocals) and the french bread pizzas in the microwave. Perhaps it’s time to give Salisbury “steak” a try.

  2. jbeach

    Looks like pure satisfaction. I have to admit there was always something I liked about salisbury steak served at school, or wherever it was that I ate it. I can’t focus my memory enough right now to bring up the taste or texture to determine what it was that I could have possibly enjoyed, but it was something…

    Thanks for this beautiful story. The details and honesty provide us with a peek right into that classroom.

  3. m

    There so many moments that I wish for a second chance. I just hope that I can do it right the next time. As for the Salisbury steak, that description is horrifying. “Pulp” and “meat” shouldn’t ever be in the same sentence. *shudder* However, perhaps I’ll try yours this week. :)
    [Code word: presSIGH]

  4. beyond

    We’ ve all had Graces in our lives at some point or another.
    Now I know what Salisbury steak is, thanks. I bet this would be good in meatloaf form too.

  5. Allison the Meep

    Poor Grace. I’ve felt like her a lot during my life. Weird and an outsider. I imagine everyone’s been there, even the extremely well liked and popular kids.

    You’ve taken a food which had been previously thought of as gross, and something I would put in the same category as SPAM, and turned it into something that looks so delicious. I can’t wait to try this.

  6. Anonymous

    I hope you are working toward a set of DVDs you can sell for celiac cooks and bakers, including some for the newly diagnosed who never cooked before (but need to now) and some for experienced celiac cooks and those who cooked before they were diagnosed but are now adapting to new rules. Your videos are very good! Danny knows his stuff, can explain it, and connects with the viewer — and your comments and questions are perfect.

  7. La Niña

    Why did the food from our childhood come from strange places like Salisbury and the Black Forest? I wondered as a child if everyone ate steak in Salisbury, and if they only ate cake in the Black Forest.

    I’ve had a bad history with steak. My mom cooked it until it was gray and dry as a dish towel. The good news was I could take it out of my mouth and put it in my napkin, and then feed our dog under the table.

    In college they served “minute steak” which looked like shoe leather. I had gone vegetarian by high school, though.

    Then in my twenties I lived in the South, in Georgia, and I was given “Country Fried Steak.” I couldn’t believe that anyone would dip ground beef in batter and fry it. But then again, the Scots do that to snickers bars.

    I must admit I am wary of Salisbury steak even now, but after many years as an omnivore again, I’ve been open to more suggestions. I think Booth would like this. Especially with potatoes.

    …and do they only eat sausage in Vienna? …and toast in France?

    (and maybe Grace will find you… the internet has magical powers, kind of like Tarot…)

  8. Cate

    thank you for such a achingly trenchant story, shauna. we should all reach out the graces of the world, especially right now.

    and i could eat that salisbury steak all day. mushrooms, onions and gravy? fuggidaboutit.

  9. Lauren Denneson

    I remember those TV dinners! We only had them in “emergency” situations when mom didn’t feel like cooking (or couldn’t), though — and chicken was my favorite too. Thanks for having to courage to explore Salisbury steak for us!

  10. Sho

    You probably won’t believe that I was hoping you would do a post on Salisbury steak. It was actually one of my favorite TV dinners. I have also eaten in the diner in Hanover, Pennsylvania, and it was great!

    Now if only you would do a post on gefilte fish! I am not fond of the bland variety.

    Shoshannah

  11. Hannah Handpainted

    Mm. I LOVE salisbury steak. I never really had it growing up, though. I’ve been making it gluten-free for a while. I don’t always use mushrooms (though I love them) because my husband doesn’t eat them. It’s fun because you can change the flavors however you’d like. I think I even added curry and such one time, mustard and honey another. I sear the patties, then simmer them the sauce and they are so tender!

    Glad you got to relive this.

    Poor Grace…yeah. I can relate to that.Although the tarot part I don’t find embarrassing because I’ve read tarot for years and I love it.

    Have a great day,

    Hannah

  12. sweetpea

    Hum, I know Grace! For most of my life I have felt like I was on the outside looking in, never really a part of what I was looking into, not even a part of my own family. So it should come as no surprise that I love salisbury steak and swiss steak too! I will admit this post conjured up many memories from long ago, not only food memories but memories of being the odd one out! Well done my friend, well done.

  13. Janel

    You have to conjure my childhood memories of Salisbury steak right when I gave up red meat for Lent, didn’t you??!!

    I was spoiled with Salisbury steak as a teen, because my dear friend’s Mom made the best one ever.

    I think I know what my Easter dinner will behold :)

    Thanks for the memories!!

  14. GREEN KEY

    When I was a kid I love-love-loved Stouffer’s frozen salisbury steak. I imagine I’d detest it now. But this looks delicious — and I love that it was born out of humor!

  15. Alisa - Frugal Foodie

    How in the world do you remember all of these details???

    Beautiful story and delicious looking meal!

  16. Vanessa

    I like the “steak” part with mayonnaise, not gravy or mushrooms. In Russia the patties are called kotlety and are a frozen food staple.

  17. Erin

    I don’t think I’v ever had Salisbury steak, tv dinner or real. Yours looks quite tasty, I may have to give it a go.

    I had a Grace too, if only we knew then what we know now.

  18. StuffCooksWant

    Any ideas for gluten-free bread crumbs if I have no access to a Trader Joe’s? Does Whole Foods carry something similar?

    BTW, I ate Black Forest Cake in the actual Black Forest and it was terrible! Tons of alcohol and no sugar in the whipped cream. Only time in my life that I left some dessert on my plate.

  19. GG

    This is spooky. Just yesterday I looked through all my recipes and cookbooks looking for Salisbury Steak! I used to work for a company in Texas that had a catering department. The chef — from Vietnam — made the best SS and I wish that I had asked him for the recipe. He shaped his like mini meat loaves and the gravy was fabulous.

    Can’t wait to try this.

  20. Anonymous

    Wow, I wish Grace could see your website and reach you!! I can’t imagine ever reading that many books, ever, but I know I own at least 500…I love the way you wright!!! I loved your first book and can’t wait for your recipe book!!! I was thinking about you the other day while listening to Marianne Williamson’s audio tapes on Mystical Power. She is this terrific author and speaker of things metaphysical. She talks about a great “Yes” and I thought of you and your yes tattoo and such. I also have recently re-read the Richard Bach book “Illusions” and there seems to be a “Yes” moment in that book too. I am reading alot of these type books right now, so they are just all kind of running together. Just wanted to let you know about the authors and was curious if you had read any books by them. Love Ya!!!

  21. Ellemay

    I grew up calling these rissoles and they were dads specialty. We used a little rice instead of breadcrumbs.

    Best served with mashed potatoes and smothered in and onion and mushroom gravy.

    Om nom nom nom.

    I have to convince dad to make some now!

  22. Tori

    Ah, Salisbury Steak and Ramona the Pest. Both memories of my youth. I left the steak behind but I like to think I still have a little Ramona in me.

    Shortly after moving to Portland I took a long bus ride across town to Klickitat street and later found the statues of Ramona, Henry and Ribsy in Grant Park. Ms. Cleary makes appearances every so often at the county library; most recently shortly after her 90th birthday. When she reads the children’s section fills with adults. It’s a sight to see.

  23. Anonymous

    I love Salisbury Steak when the weather is cold. I put a touch of port in the gravy and a little bit of tomato paste to make it rich and golden.

  24. MsJess

    I tried to make salisbury steak a few months ago but I couldn’t get the salisbury steak patties to stay in pattied form, they kept crumbling. Still tasted delicious.

    I don’t have any memories of eating frozen dinners as a child, I should probably count that as a blesssing.

  25. Erika

    Poor Grace. I wonder how she would feel if she read this post. Would she be embarrassed at the description of her? We have all know a Grace or have been one ourselves. It’s painful and uncomfortable, but we can learn to accept people as they are. And we can teach our children to do the same.

  26. mepperson77

    Can you beleive that my husband actually loves the “banquet frozen” salsbury steak? Yuck! My kids always called it mystery meat. I might have to make him some real salsbury steak!
    I think the movie “Napoleon Dynamite” is a story about someone like Grace. I think it was popular because everyone knew a Napoleon or they were a Napoleon. It was very relatable in an hysterical way!

  27. Melissa

    YUM — I loves me some Salisbury steak. The mushrooms? The onions? Oh yes. No joke, it’s one of the things I miss most about meat. Since we went veg I recall certain meat flavors vividly — Salisbury steak is one of them. I saw a soy version at Trader Joe’s last week… haven’t gotten up the gumption to try it. Don’t know if I can handle the crushing disappointment that will inevitably ensue.

    P.S. My fave part of the videos — Lucy’s little voice in the background.

  28. Nana2006

    Thank you so much for the video! I have numerous attepmts at making GF gravy and can see where I failed. I would add the liquid to the roux. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and experience! Both of you are making a difference in the world of Gluten Free food! I recently purchased your book Gluten Free Girl. You are a wonderful writer! Thank you for sharing your life experiences! You inspire me to make more food from scratch!!!

  29. tamara

    I’m another one hoping Grace reads this post, or that you look for her on a social networking site. I don’t think she’d be embarrassed at all to read this post, as another poster suggested above.

  30. Shauna

    Thank you, everyone. Writing this post came from nowhere, or somewhere deep in me. I’m glad so many of you enjoyed it.

    And I hope that some of you made Salisbury steak! (not Lianne)

    Anonymous, goodness! We hadn’t thought of the dvd idea. But it’s a good one. Hm…

    La Nina, I agree. Magical powers. And you should try this recipe. I know you’d love it.

    Cate, thank you. Trenchant is such a great word. I feel the same — we’re all Grace. There are so many to reach.

    Sho, I hate to break this to you, but I can’t imagine us ever doing a piece on gefilte fish. Then again, we like a challenge…

    Alisa, how do I remember these details? When I sit down to write, they come flooding back. That’s part of the reason I love this so much.

    Matt et al, I don’t remember her last name. But as Nina said, the internet is magic. Someone will find her.

    StuffCooksWant, oh you can use any gluten free bread for breadcrumbs. let the bread go stale for a day and you won’t even have to toast it!

    Erika, oh my goodness, my intention wasn’t to embarrass her! We’re all a little bit Grace. I sure was. If you read the last line of the piece again, I hope you’ll see that I intended it the way you mean.

    MTowne, I was writing in the voice of the 10-year-old there. You know how, when you’re a little different at that age, anything even more different is embarrassing? I felt sorry for her that there was a huge wooden sign in her front lawn, not that her mother read Tarot, so much. Now, I’d want to be her friend.

  31. MTowne

    Yes, I know what you mean :-) I do recall that feeling from childhood.

    I just wondered if it could have been the case that she was less embarrassed by her poverty than you were.

  32. Big Love over Logic

    You described her as smelling like pee of course she would be embarassed if she read that today, how can you not ‘get’ that?

  33. Marion

    Hi Shauna! I made this today. I skipped the sauteed onions and gravy, but shouldn’t have. Hubby liked it, daughter was neutral, but for myself I think thinner patties would have been better. Not a total success for my family, but a great starting point. I look forward to making the tweaks to make it work for us!

    PS I *was* Grace, glasses, pee and all. Don’t worry. We grow up fine.

  34. susan

    I cheat. I have a tight budget and do not buy rice bread crumbs. I use my coffee grinder and brown rice and make my own filler/bread crumbs and there is no difference in the final product.

  35. Daniél Minton

    I made this tonight with green beans and mashed potatoes, and it was FANTASTIC!!! No, amazing. I really needed some comfort food, and omg did it hit the spot. The fresh sage was a genius touch. I used some leftover homemade beef broth for the mushroom gravy.

    It was literally amazing. Thank you so much for sharing this recipe.

    Daniél