“Steak Night” In Central Illinois


The past two weeks I’ve posted about a couple of pretty fancy restaurants in London and in Paris. But a part of me always feels like an imposter in places like that – as though the maître ‘d is going to say, “Ah, Roberts. From Keewanee, Illinois. I have a lovely table for you back by ze kitchen.”

…or maybe down in a dirt basement like the one in my childhood home, where three generations of us lived under the same roof – my grandma, my aunt and uncle, my parents and me.

At the time, I didn’t know that we were poor. Nor did I know that my town was little more than a boil on the buttocks of Illinois. After all, we were the self-proclaimed “HOG CAPITAL OF THE WORLD!” (Could Paris or London say THAT?)

As our families sat down for dinner each evening – each and EVERY evening – I had absolutely no idea that great care had been taken to economize and “stretch” every recipe and dish to feed all six of us. All I knew is that there was always plenty of food – food that I have nothing but fond memories of.

All of which brings me to a “GO-TO” dish that we had on almost a weekly basis.


I knew nothing about the history of the dish, of course. It’s said to have originated in Hamburg, Germany, a city known for minced and chopped meat, a preparation method that German butchers had borrowed from Russia. It’s called the HAMBURG STEAK. In Sweden, it’s called PANNBIFF and the meat is a mixture of pork and beef served up with cream sauce and Lingonberries (Swedish meatballs, anyone?)

Don’t ask me how it got there, but even Hawaii has a version, called THE LOCO MOCO. As near as I can tell, the only difference between it and a SALISBURY STEAK is that the LOCO MOCO is served over a bed of white rice.

In our house rice played an important role…as did breadcrumbs…and oatmeal…and Rice Krispies. Unbeknownst to me, all four were used as “extenders” to the ground beef in order to bulk it up and therefore serve bigger portions to more people.

No surprise here, but France had a fancy iteration of the dish called HACHE DE BOEUF: ground sirloin mixed with Gorgonzola cheese, eggs and anchovies. A drum roll please….and everyone…. a loud chorus of “La Marseillaise,” s’il vous plait.

But back to reality and good old SALISBURY STEAK…

BTW, the ground beef was always fashioned into an oval, not a round. I suppose that was to make it look more like a steak.

I paid no attention to my Mom’s recipe but I imagine it called for onions, garlic, eggs, the aforementioned “filler,” and probably ketchup. Most always it was accompanied by mashed potatoes, frozen peas (Birds Eye, no doubt) and occasionally macaroni (or perhaps spaghetti; that was all the local A&P carried. Certainly no flat noodles or foreign shapes).

I have since learned that some recipes call for a fried egg on top. Sounds good, but none of that nonsense in our house. Once in a while some carrots and potatoes would find their way onto the plate, but that’s it!

Around that time, the A&P started carrying SWANSON’S FROZEN TV DINNERS, and possibly next to roast turkey, Salisbury Steak was the top seller. God, how I lusted for a TV DINNER! Maybe because we had just gotten our first television set, a gift from my Dad’s boss, and a set of TV tables, from cashing in Gold Bond Stamps.

At any rate, the Swanson’s frozen TV dinner is said to have diminished the image of Salisbury Steak. But not for me. In our house, Swanson’s was a step-up.

Then again, Swanson’s didn’t add a can or two of CAMPBELL’S CREAM OF MUSHROOM SOUP to its Salisbury Steak the way my mom did. Nor did its TV dinners come with a six-to-eight-inch-tall stack of sliced Wonder Bread like my mom placed at the center of the table. There was no greater pleasure than sopping up the mushroom gravy with slices of soft, white, store-bought Wonder Bread.

Now, there is something of a ritual and culinary disconnect that went on in our house every spring. My Dad and my uncle Don and I would head out early every Saturday morning in May to forage for MOREL MUSHROOMS – always to the same place: a woods outside Galesburg, Illinois, where a friendly farmer allowed us to search year after year. And search we did. We had our secret spots in the forest around certain fallen and rotting trees. And if there were “JACK-IN- THE- PULPITS” growing nearby….we’d hit the morel mother lode.

I am not exaggerating when I say that we’d return home around noon every Saturday with two or three A&P grocery bags chock-full of just-picked morels. And guess what? Saturday night dinner on those days was always Salisbury Steak with Morel Mushroom Sauce!

One more thing: As a Saturday daytime treat for us foragers hungry from “the hunt,” My mother would take a pound or two from the grocery bag and toss ‘em into the kitchen sink full of ice cold salty water (the salt to get the bugs out of the spongy tops}.

Once thoroughly soaked, dried and bug free, she’d toss them into a 12-inch cast iron skillet with a fistful of salt and a quarter pound of butter. Fifteen minutes later, my uncle and my dad and my mom and I would sit down at the kitchen table, each of us with a platter of these pan-fried beauties – each of them with a can of BLATZ BEER, and me with a bottle ROYAL CROWN COLA and sometimes a MOON PIE.



One thought on ““Steak Night” In Central Illinois

  • May 24, 2018 at 9:37 pm

    Sounds like my home in Harvard, Illinois. I guess in that era, coming from a middle class hard working family, we all pretty much ate the same type of food. However, we ran the local Kroger grocery store and had to always have the wilted lettuce, day old bread and the meat that was turning dark. Plus we very seldom got the good frozen vegetables. We had to take the dented cans to our house. Oh those were the days. In 45 minutes I will be eating at my favorite stake place, Pittsburgh Blue. You did good Phil.

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