When I was growing up in small-town Mississippi in the 1960s, TV dinners were a treat, something different from home-cooked, not better, really, just exotic, some indication that outside the stagnant backwater of Bruce, Mississippi, the world was actually making some degree of progress, if only in convenience foods. For a little over a dollar we could buy fried chicken, meatloaf, or turkey and dressing with whipped potatoes and neon peas in a compartmentalized space-age metal containers and eat them on the fold-away TV tables. I remember doing exactly that the first time I saw “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” I was eight years old.
My favorite was the fried chicken, but brother Tom’s was Salisbury steak. That’s about as close as he could get to a hamburger, which a Salisbury steak rather much is. It’s named for James Salisbury, one of those impressive food faddists of the late 19th century whose ranks include Kellogg, Post, and Mary Grove Nichols (by far the coolest of this three.) Salisbury advocated the same low-carb diet as Tarnower and Atkins, one known now as paleo, his being very much meat-centered. Salisbury’s version of a “lean beef cake,” calls for meat “from the centre of the round” procured from “well-fatted animals that are from four to six years old,” but any lean is good.
For a pound of beef, add a quarter cup bread crumbs, work in a squirt or two of ketchup. Don’t over-work the meat. Form into no more than four cakes about an inch thick. Cook slowly, in a low oven to medium well, season with pepper and salt. While this recommendation doesn’t fit the doctor’s diet, my optimal serving of Salisbury steak requires mushroom gravy (a light one) and creamed potatoes with a little ton of butter.