Seeking Salvation in Salisbury Steak

The breadless hamburger meat masquerades as something more important. To me, it tastes like Catholic school.

Seeking salvation in Salisbury Steak
Photo: MouseMouse

In observance of the Faith, we abstained from eating meat on Fridays during Lent. Fish was allowed, because fish was a lesser kind of meat. As long as we weren’t having as much fun as we could be having, God was pleased. Or rather, God was sated. God, I learned in Catholic school, was rarely pleased.

There were so many rules, so many things he didn’t like; the best you could hope for was to placate him. Only people who went the extra mile really made him happy, and those people usually ended up burned at the stake or missing key body parts.

Food was one of the many theatres of war in Catholic school, where we children in our white and navy uniforms did battle against the Devil. He tended to manifest in the forms of things we liked—Pokémon, the Backstreet Boys, television. Indulging in these temptations, engaging in pleasure, we were told, took us further from God.

Suffering, meanwhile, brought us closer to him. I once fell from a fence I was climbing during recess and busted my knee on the ground. “It might hurt for the rest of your life,” my teacher, a nun, told me hopefully.

If suffering was a good thing, then St. Mary’s cafeteria was doing its job. Aside from the sad fish filets we ate during Lent, we had ham and cheese sandwiches wrapped in foil, a soupy mac and cheese with bits of ham thrown in, and, most memorably, Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes on the side.

At its base level, Salisbury steak is a breadless hamburger masquerading as something more important. I encountered it plenty of times in my six years at St. Mary’s. I received the sacraments, had my first communion, appeared in my first Easter pageant as Pontius Pilate where I condemned my most hated classmate to crucifixion, and all the while I was served that heinous Salisbury steak with onions and gravy on a plastic tray.

I don’t know how to describe the taste other than “oppressive.” The problem is, like the wafers that transfigured into hunks of Jesus at communion, St. Mary’s Salisbury steak can no longer be comfortably categorized as “food.” Food can be described, and therefore contained, by language that relates it to other foods; one might ascribe a “nutty” flavor to something that is not a nut, for example. But I have to turn instead to the dish's official definition, as I’m too biased to judge it fairly.

Salisbury steak, which like Frankenstein’s monster is named after its creator Dr. J. H. Salisbury, was invented in the late 1800s, and is made of ground beef and served hot with brown sauce. At St. Mary’s, it took on a lumpy shape that, when smothered in the gravy, gave the impression that it might suddenly burp or attempt to crawl away. It was chewy, and if pressed, I suppose I could charitably call its flavor “meat.”

But to me, Salisbury steak tastes like Catholic school. It tastes like Sister Herman Mary shoving my shirttail down my pants, her long, yellow nails clawing me while she mutters, “chubby.” It tastes like God being unhappy with me. It tastes like early Wednesday morning mass, a formal tie gently strangling my neck. Tasting it never fails to curl my toes and scrunch my face in revulsion.

“So avoid Salisbury steak,” one might reasonably say. It’s been nearly two decades since Catholic school. It shouldn’t be terribly hard to dodge now that a cafeteria lady isn’t slapping it on a tray and telling me to eat it.

But it’s here that I would have to explain how the texture and aroma of those Salisbury steaks keep cropping up in unexpected places, shocking me back into that miserable period of life. There are smothered steaks, hamburger meat slabs, and brown-soaked potatoes I’ve encountered in the wild that, the moment they land on my tongue, ask me if I know their good friend, Salisbury steak. I can’t realistically escape Salisbury steak any more than I can escape Catholicism, which has influenced so much of the known world as to be inevitable.

My God no longer takes the form of a disgruntled old white man in the clouds for whom I am never suffering quite profoundly enough. I no longer identify as part of the Church, though I was confirmed with the saint name Juan Diego, or “the Mexican one,” as I called him. It should go without saying that I no longer eat the food on offer at the cafeteria.

But that’s what makes my visceral reaction to Salisbury steak all the more disturbing for me—it upsets me less for the momentary displeasure it creates and more for what that displeasure, occurring so many years after the fact, reveals about how trauma informs the body.

My fear is that while I no longer subscribe to the doctrine, Catholicism has nonetheless provided the framework for how I process pain and stigmatize pleasure.

In kindergarten, one of my classmates, a little boy, kissed another boy on the hand. This all but launched an inquisition; there were the nuns, searching with some inscrutable rage for the boy who’d done it, and us, the boys, shaking in our slacks and wondering if we were somehow guilty by association.

The boy was rooted out and smacked with a ruler, but it was the furor of the search I remember best. The nuns explained that what had just happened was an abomination. They seemed equally angry with us as they were with the sobbing boy in the corner. I wouldn’t kiss a boy myself until I was twenty, and not without some instinct to terror.

I no longer believe experiencing pleasure pulls me further from God, but like my tongue remembers Salisbury steak, my body remembers the Catholic God. There remains something, some being with his rough dimensions in me. It tempers my happiness with guilt, asks me, “Why should you, of all lowly creatures, feel good about anything?”

I know this muscle memory exists, because I have found myself wanting to return to prayer. But I’m unable to imagine what prayer could be beyond the strings of Hail Mary’s I used to recite in bed, when I would fold my hands, close my eyes, and whisper them skyward, desperate to satisfy God, who lived inside me and could see my thoughts.

Five, ten, sometimes fifteen prayers in a row, grueling repetition. I still see the world this way. I don’t believe I should be allowed to rest before I have whittled myself down to an exhausted skeleton. “Allowed.” The word occupies a key place in my spiritual ecosystem, even though I have no one to ask for permission anymore.

The way I see it, my journey to overcome my traumatic relationship with Salisbury steak could end in a few ways.

First, there’s the path of the ascetic, the Catholic way. This would see me eating Salisbury steak on a daily basis, punishing myself with it until suffering saw me through to the other side. I would emerge, fully cleansed of my affliction, and I would become the secular patron saint of meal prep or something ridiculously specific like that. In a moment of redemption, I would eat Salisbury steak, and it would remind me of nothing at all.

Second, there’s the path of the heretic, the one I took with my gayness. It would see me making my own Salisbury steak in my kitchen, perhaps among chosen family, and making new memories to associate with it. I could announce that Salisbury steak feels more like celebration now, whether that was true or not, and feel empowered.

But I don’t think trauma works that way. I can neither extricate my Catholic upbringing from my brain, nor can I rewire my tongue. Trauma is a living thing that takes up residence in the folds of the mind and doesn’t die until we do. Where does that leave us?

Catholicism has its points. I say that begrudgingly, but there’s something to be said about the beauty of suffering, the need for it, the transformative role it plays. Pain is inevitable, but rebirth is possible, Catholicism says. On that point, we do agree.

The last time I ate Salisbury steak was a couple of weeks ago. I saw it on a tavern menu and ordered it in one of my bids to screw with myself, perhaps itself an unwitting, Catholic instinct to self-injury. When I ate it, my hand shook as my tongue drew up the rough shape of the God who loomed over me as a kid.

I’m glad I don’t worship him anymore.

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