Food Snob Chronicles – American comfort food: A brief history of some classics

What do rabbis and Romans have in common with old school French and southern U.S. cooks? They helped establish the comfort food standards that millions of Americans have enjoyed for generations.

Guess what? This very-American comfort dish has roots way deeper than the Declaration of Independence. Heck, meatloaf is older than more than two-thirds of the world’s countries.

It’s from Apicius, a 4th century A.D. cookbook that was compiled for the conceited empire that ‘wasn’t built in a day.’ Yep. You read that correctly. Meatloaf is as Roman as chariot races and men wearing skirts in battle. And the recipe sounds appealing — minced meat mixed with spices, wine-soaked bread and pine nuts.

As for the stuff we make and eat in the modern era, thanks should go to the Pennsylvania Dutch and their scrapple, a mixture of pork, cornmeal and spices that is congealed and fried. (And it’s quite delicious.) We can also give praise to the Industrial Revolution, where meat grinding machines were invented — paving the way for most people to have access to meat, regardless of income. Oh, and we can thank the Great Depression too, when impoverished people were forced to stretch even the cheapest ground meat.

So, thank you Pennsylvania Dutch cooks. And to the Great Depression: we’re indebted to you as well. Oh, and thank you ketchup people.

Macaroni & Cheese
It should come as no surprise that our friends in France were making and eating macaroni & cheese a few hundred years before Gen. George Washington crossed the Delaware River. After all, the French enjoy their dairy products almost as much as they do their cigarettes.

But seriously, pasta and cheese is listed in Liber de Coquina, a medieval cookbook written between the 13th and 14th centuries. In their classic style, the French used Parmesan. The use of Cheddar wasn’t so widespread until the 18th century, when Elizabeth Raffald included a version with bechamel, Cheddar and Parmesan in her cookbook The Experienced English Housekeeper. Want to see her cookbook? It sort of reads like the original version of Beowulf, but here it is.

Banana Pudding
I cannot imagine a banana pudding that doesn’t include Nilla Wafers. But, alas, the dish was popular long before Nabisco introduced the iconic vanilla-flavored cookies in the late-1960s.

Though banana pudding is the likely offspring of the trifle (English), this dish is true American. Two early 20th century American cookbooks included recipes for the treat, and it’s quite likely that it was concocted somewhere around southern Louisiana, where bananas were first imported into the U.S. via the Port of New Orleans.

Did you know? The National Banana Pudding Festival is held annually in Hickman County, Tennessee. The 2014 event happens Oct. 13-14. Think your version is the best? You can prove it in the festival’s National Banana Pudding Cook-off.

Chicken Soup
There is no clear answer as to the origin of chicken soup. But we know enough to realize that Campbell’s Soup didn’t invent it.

These days commonly referred to as Jewish Penicillin, there’s historical merit to that moniker. Way back in the 1100s, Moses Maimonides — a rabbi and physician — encouraged his European flock to eat yardbird soup by touting its health benefits. Almost every culture has its own reasons for incorporating chicken soup into the regular menu rotation, but poverty is probably the most widespread. In fact, raising chickens is cheap. Not to mention, a hen provides plenty of eggs before she’s plucked and boiled.

Now, to Campbell’s… That little can of chicken noodle soup is 80 years old this year, according to a company press release. Here are a few more interesting tidbits from the release.

  • In 1934, Campbell set the standard by introducing the famed Noodle with Chicken soup.
  • In 1938, Campbell changed the name of its Noodle with Chicken soup. During a broadcast of a popular radio program, one of the famous on-air personalities misread his copy and called the product Chicken Noodle soup. Within days of the slip, Campbell began receiving large orders for its new product as it began flying off store shelves.
  • In 1962, renowned artist  Andy Warhol  painted the wildly popular 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans, which included Chicken Noodle soup, further establishing the brand in pop culture.

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And you thought I’d leave out Salisbury steak? Shame, shame! In fact, there was a Salisbury — Dr. James H. Salisbury. He was more than 100 years ahead of the late Dr. Robert Atkins (Atkins Diet) in preaching that low carbs were the way to go. Salisbury introduced his most famous offering, the Salisbury Steak, in the late 1800s. School cafeterias and low-end frozen food companies have been botching it ever since. But there is a delicious version of this minced-meat concoction. Read on…

Grown-up Salisbury Steak

Salisbury Steak. This ain't the stuff you ate at school.

Grown-up Salisbury Steak. This ain’t the stuff you ate at school.

The ‘Steak’
1½ lbs – Ground beef (90/10 or leaner)
2 – Eggs
1/2 cup – Quick cooking oats (or plain breadcrumbs)
1 TB – Barbecue sauce
1 tsp – Dried Thyme
1 tsp – Ground Mustard
1 tsp – Freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp – Kosher Salt

About 1 TB – Vegetable oil

Combine ingredients and form into round or oval patties. Heat oil in large skillet to medium-high and fry patties on both sides until nicely browned and almost done, about 4-5 minutes per side. Set patties aside for now. Reduce skillet temperature to medium.

The Sauce
2 cups – Fresh mushrooms, sliced
1 – Medium onion, sliced
2 TB – Butter
2 TB – All-purpose flour
1 cup – Dry red wine
2 cups – Beef stock
Dark Soy Sauce, to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

The pan should have a nice glaze of oil from frying the patties. If there is excess (a pool), remove it. Add mushrooms and onion slices to pan and stir-fry for about five minutes. The onion should start showing some signs of caramelization. Add wine to pan. Cook, stirring regularly, until wine has mostly evaporated. Add butter to pan; then add flour. Stir until all mushrooms and onions are coated. Continue cooking and stirring for about 2 minutes. Add stock and combine, stirring well to avoid lumps. Bring mixture to a simmer and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring regularly, until it has thickened slightly. Add soy sauce to taste (this is the main source of salt in this dish). Add steaks back to pan and allow to simmer for a couple of minutes. Turn off heat; cover and allow to sit for about 5 minutes.

Serves 5.


  1. I can’t help but think of the Far Side cartoon where the mother chicken is giving chicken noodle soup to her kid and saying, “First, it will make you feel better. And second, it’s nobody we know.”

  2. I’d have to disagree about scrapple. I tried it last time I was in PA and couldn’t stand it. Salisbury steak, however, that’s my kind of meal. That’s an amazing gravy you created, my friend.

    • adamjholland says:

      Thank you, Christiane. Some scrapple is better than others. I like the versions sold in many western PA diners, because they tend to use a lot of organ meat. But, hey.. I’m somewhat unorthodox in my tastes.

  3. I’m with Christiane. Tried scrapple once and it was disgusting. Your salisbury steak on the other hand looks delicious.

    • adamjholland says:

      Thank you for your kind words, Jason. Looks like there are at least a couple of you whom I will try to bring over to the ‘scrapple is the bomb’ camp. Just you wait and see.

  4. I enjoyed the information today.
    It also made me very hungry. The kids are out in the kitchen cooking Country Fried Steak. Not a bad surprise when you walk in the door from work.

  5. I do have to say that I used to love the Salisbury steak from the cafeteria lunchroom. Of course that was when the food was placed on real glass plates and placed before you on the table. No plastic trays back then. And freshly made cookies of which the icebox cookie was my fave. I must tell you though that yours looks much, much better than i remember!

  6. This was a great read as always and I’m totally inspired to make this minced meat dish! Tonight was a rite of passage–my oldest sat and read this post with me. Sniffle, sniffle :) . The joy of sharing something witty that she understands and appreciates. Thanks for the fun addition to our night!

    • adamjholland says:

      Thank you, Ann. Even my own children haven’t sat and read this. (And that’s the truth!) I really appreciate your kind words.

  7. Hogwash! We all know meatloaf was invented in our own Mother’s kitchen. :) I saw it with my own eyes. Adam your photo of that Salisbury steak is outstanding. Makes me want to reach right in with a fork and scoop up a bite of those potatoes.

    • adamjholland says:

      Thanks, Lea Ann. Funny thing is, I’ll often cheat on the side dishes (i.e. – using instant potatoes), but this batch went from the peeler to the water to the food mill.

  8. I can’t wait to try this. Sometimes I think ground beef can be a little bland. This looks divine!

  9. This was DELICIOUS and so simple to make! Thank you for sharing. I’ve not had Salisbury steak in ages. Love your commentary, you make me laugh. Keep up the great work!


  1. […] Salisbury Steak (a variation of a recipe from the Unorthodox Epicure)  […]

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