Monday, June 20, 2011

#73. Raw beef and onion sandwich with raw yellow onion and salt and pepper on fresh rye bread

I am a true carnivore.

I love my steak rare; I like to tease my sister that I like it to “moo” on the plate. My meat loving is not restricted to steak though; chicken, pork, lamb, veal, ostrich, buffalo and any kind of fish all make me salivate. I even plan on trying gator meat when we take Maureen to college in Florida. One of the more unusual meat dishes I have a taste for is what I call “Steak Tartare a la Baltimore.”
And yes, it is what it sounds like to all the foodies out there.
“Tartare a la Baltimore” is ground round with chopped yellow onions mixed in, salted and peppered and served on dark rye or pumpernickel bread sandwich-style. My parents enjoyed and introduced this dish to me at my grandfather’s catering hall where this popular dish was served at almost every bull-roast, wedding and buffet they could remember. Despite the popularity this dish enjoyed years ago, its origins are a bit more vague.

My research leads me to Norway. Tartarmad is minced steak served with raw onion, a raw egg, salted and peppered and served on rich, dark rye bread. Similar, no? A similar German dish, by the name of Mett or Hackepeter, is minced pork with salt, pepper and onions served on rye rolls. The source of these dishes is traced back to the ethnic Tartars, the horse-riding inhabitants of central- and Siberian northern-Asia. These nomadic people were said to eat their meat raw because they were on the move so frequently, and legend has it they kept steak underneath their saddles where it became extremely tender and fell apart. The tradition continued to Russian medieval plates, where the egg was added to enhance the taste. The popularity of the dish spread from Russia to neighboring countries in northern Europe and voila, the rest is history.

So how did this dish come to Baltimore? Any frequent reader of my blog knows what I am about to say: immigrants. Danish and German immigrants came to the United States and introduced this dish to the people around them. A bull and oyster roast (a VERY Baltimore tradition and subject of a later blog) is very much like a Scandinavian Smörgåsbord, a large potluck or buffet with lots of alcohol involved. This is perhaps why so many Scandinavian foods are incorporated in a bull and oyster roast, such as sausages, sauerkraut, rye bread, and steak tartare, etc. Although steak tartare was a very popular dish in Baltimore (not so much now because of health concerns), it was and remains much more popular in areas heavily settled by Scandinavian immigrants such as Wisconsin, which boasts a large tourist attraction known as “Little Norway”. In fact, my hero, muse and aspiration Anthony Bourdain is eating steak tartare and cheddar in Milwaukee on the television in front of me as I type. This proves great minds think alike (and that he should hire me/make me his prodigy).  

The Baltimore version of steak tartare echoes the tradition of the dish’s past: a working-class comfort food, served at large get-togethers or in small kitchens. The dish is reminiscent of bull and oyster roasts, which bring to mind a working-class party with food and flowing alcohol. I always grew up watching my parents and grandfather eat it out of a metal bowl in the kitchen of the catering hall where they worked. It is easy and cheap enough to make: raw ground beef or steak seasoned with the simple salt and pepper combo, with minced yellow onions and a few slices of rye bread. For all you meat-eaters out there, I suggest you try it. Health concerns be damned. Make sure you’re eating quality fresh-ground chuck and you’ll be fine.  People have been eating this dish for centuries and I now understand why.

References: and Egg


  1. Thank you for this "memory," as it brought to mind my grandmother (german descent), grinding her beef in a hand-cranked grinder clapped to the end of the kitchen table. She loved making this sandwich. So happy to have accidently found this goldmine of baltimore "food" memories.

  2. I grew up craving and eating what is now known as steak tartar....we just called raw been 'n onions on rye. You will find a recipe in the "Old Settlement Cookbook" under the title "Milwaukee Sandwich". Of course I grew up near the old Germanic settlement called Milwaukee, Wisconsin, so my origins might be biased. On New Year's Eve they would serve it in the taverns (before the day's of sneeze guards). As I just finished eating two of them, I had wondered what might be out in the world regarding the forbidden delicacy.

  3. I'm late to the party here, but I thought you would like to know that a raw beef with onions sandwich was on the lunch menu at Haussner's, that much-missed East Baltimore landmark. It was served open-faced on pumpernickel rye, with the beef very cold and pressed thickly on both pieces of bread. There were precise, industrial-looking, criss-cross press marks on the ground beef. The coarsely chopped white onion was on the side. I would usually make it a "raw meal" with raw oysters as my appetizer.