The Geography of Swiss Steak

Many years ago at a conference for Southern fiction at Ole Miss, I took umbrage at the inclusion of Bobbie Ann Mason’s splendid novel In Country because the author is from Kentucky, which I do not consider a Southern state. Kentucky was in the middle border during the Civil War, not a member of the Confederacy, and in my book it is not Southern, nor are Missouri, West Virginia, Maryland, or Delaware.

When a family from Kentucky moved to my very small rural Mississippi town in the early 60s they were of course welcomed and quietly became members of the community. With them they brought Swiss steak, which my adolescent mind tagged as a Yankee recipe. For some reason the Swiss designation slipped right over my little provincial Southern brain, probably more because for obvious reasons Switzerland held far less significance than THE NORTH. Anything Yankee was automatically suspect, and as such Swiss steak entered the nether category Reserved for Further Observation.

“To swiss” is actually an English verb that has little to do with cooking, meaning “a calendering process for cotton fabrics that produces a smooth compact texture”. Some food writers have taken a leap of faith and declared that because the cooking process renders a tough cut of meat “smooth”, which is why beef cooked this way is “Swiss”, but the ease and appeal of beef stewed with tomatoes is world-wide.

Bread and fry thin trimmed cuts of top round until browned, drain and place in a casserole. Top with your favorite tomato  sauce, and bake at a temp until tender. Serve with buttered potatoes.

Family Ties

Dear Janice,

It’s been just hot as hell here lately, and the tomatoes have been making like I’ve never seen. Hugh says it’s because you gave us those hose to tie up the plants. He said they’re flexible and they don’t cut into the stem like string would. He doesn’t know I found some in the bottom dresser drawer in the spare bedroom, but I wanted you to.

Your devoted sister,
Doris

The Red Knight

The story of Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson’s public establishment of the reputedly poisonous tomato as edible might be apocryphal, but it’s still a good yarn.

According to what passes for legend, Col. Johnson mounted the courthouse steps in Salem, New Jersey on September 30, 1820 (dates vary) with a basket full of tomatoes to eat. Over 2,000 people assembled to watch him drop dead after the first bite and wagered upon the exact moment (it being New Jersey after all, where gambling is a fine art). His own doctor (who happened to be his wife’s brother-in-law) predicted that “the foolish colonel will foam and froth at the mouth and double over with appendicitis from all the oxalic acid”; if not immediately, then the good doctor said Johnson would die soon afterwards of “brain fever and cancer.” When Johnson took his first bite of a tomato, several onlookers fainted and two were reported to have regurgitated with vigor.

Of course Colonel Johnson lived, and while available records do not entirely support rampant speculation that he collected on more than a few substantial side wagers and retired to Europe, we can say with certainty that he helped to win the tomato a place on our tables.