I used to think I had a thing for old recipes. I’ve learned that this self-observation (like most of my impressions of myself) was wrong. I’ve actually followed “old recipes” probably twice. I once faithfully reproduced a “clam loaf.” I don’t know if it was my fault or the recipe’s, or maybe even the concept’s, but the result was inedible, and a little scary, and I arrived at the party I’d promised to bring it to holding a can of compensatory Spanish cockles. And I once made an antique “sauce piquant” with bone marrow, spooned it over a roast and coughed politely as murmurs round the table confirmed my impression that it tasted like old fish. We ate a lot of bread.
What I’ve realized is that I like dreaming about what old dishes would be. I like imagining where they would be eaten and by whom, how they might be served, what conversation and convention punctuate their eating, what time of day, what weather, what energies drive eaters to that table and from it. I do like reading their instructions. I just don’t like to follow them. I like to take what I can. It’s sometimes a particularly good way of describing one step of a process, or the suggestion of a way of life — involving long lunches and wild strawberries — or a really wonderful general idea for a dish, with a lovely and evocative name.
Salisbury steak is such an instance: a good idea and a good name, though its reputation as a TV dinner has stained the prettiness somewhat. Salisbury steak, the preparation — hand-chopped meat formed into a patty and cooked in fat — probably originated in unnamed kitchens wherever cattle grazed. It definitively existed on the menus of fine Swiss and French restaurants here and in their native lands throughout the late-19th and early-20th centuries as biftek haché, Hamburg steak or haché de boeuf.
The innocent ruddy mixture appeared under its new name in 1888 in a recipe by a Dr. Salisbury, a 19th-century physician with potent, and extreme, ideas about diet and health. Here is Salisbury’s recipe — which in its tone and intention (as a nutritional plan) blurs the distinction between “recipe” as we understand it and pharmaceutical “receipts” for prevention and cures that were once regular companions to cooking instruction. “Eat the muscle pulp of lean beef made into cakes and broiled,” he wrote. “Simply press it sufficiently to hold it together. Make the cakes from half an inch to an inch thick. Broil slowly and moderately well over a fire free from blaze and smoke. When cooked, put it on a hot plate and season to taste with butter, pepper, salt; also use either Worcestershire or Halford sauce, mustard, horseradish or lemon juice on the meat if desired.”
How many times it was recreated in that naïve, wholesome form, I don’t know. By 1962, according to a book I have from that year, titled “Meats,” and similar volumes, recipes for Salisbury steak had become burial grounds for convenience foods. One in “Meats” reads: “1 lb. ground beef, 1/2 cup cream or evaporated milk . . . flour, bacon drippings or margarine . . . Worcestershire sauce . . . 1 4 oz. can mushrooms, undrained. . . .” (This is succeeded by a recipe for Savory Beef Burgers that begins: “1 1/2 cups Rice Krispies. . . . ”)