Here's Where Salisbury Steak Really Gets Its Name

Ah, the wide, wonderful world of steak. From T-bones to hangers to skirts and more, we love diving into these various cuts and the best ways to cook them. In the mood for a T-bone? We're about that life. Looking for a hanger steak? We've been there. Prefer a skirt steak to an actual skirt or, really, any item of clothing? Us, too.

But have you ever had Salisbury steak? If you have, you know that this beef dish isn't a steak at all. Contrary to the name, it's actually more of a hamburger, and if you've never eaten one, that's because it's no longer quite as in vogue as it was in the '60s and '70s, when Salisbury steak often formed the protein centerpiece of TV dinners. Today, we wouldn't consider most frozen entrées healthy, but, ironically enough, its inventor was a doctor who deemed minced meat one of the most nutritious, most easily digestible foods.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, Dr. James Henry Salisbury was active in the Civil War era in the United States. A nutritionist who sought to treat and cure illness — particularly of the intestinal variety — Salisbury hailed from, and conducted his research in, upstate New York. Let's learn more about the doctor, whose legacy continues on today — at least in the freezer section.

An obsessive man and his favorite dish

Beginning in 1854, per the preface to his 1888 book "The Relation of Alimentation and Disease," Salisbury decided to take a rather, um, unique approach to his studies on human health. Using himself as a test subject, he determined to live on one food at a time to see how he felt and how it affected his digestion, his main area of interest in terms of health.

"I opened this line of experiments with baked beans," Salisbury wrote in his book. "I had not lived upon this food over three days before light began to break. I became very flatulent and constipated, head dizzy, ears ringing, limbs prickly, and was wholly unfitted for mental work."

Salisbury nixed beans, trying other foods before settling on his Holy Grail of lean, minced beef. When the Civil War started in 1861 and many malnourished soldiers experienced illness and even death from diarrhea and other intestinal issues, Salisbury provided chopped meat to the soldiers, later recounting his results — which he deemed successful — in his 1888 book. 

In a way, Salisbury anticipated the protein-centered Atkins Diet, trendy in the '90s, and the current craze of carnivore and paleo diets. We're not sure we're sold, though — we might trade the doctor's "muscle pulp of beef," as he described his darling, for a can of those baked beans he didn't like.