Wisconsin health officials issued an interesting warning over the weekend about a regional tradition known as “cannibal sandwiches.”
"For many #Wisconsin families, raw meat sandwiches are a #holiday tradition, but eating raw meat is NEVER recommended because of the bacteria it can contain," a warning from Wisconsin Department of Health Services posted on Dec. 12 reads. "Ground beef should always be cooked to 160 degrees!"
Raw meat sandwiches are apparently a longtime southeastern Wisconsin Christmas tradition, according to a 2019 article from Wisconsin Public Radio. The star ingredient is, of course, raw ground beef, usually seasoned with spices and onions and served on bread or a cracker.
It’s sometimes also called “tiger meat” or “steak tartare.” According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, it’s most often served as an appetizer on rye cocktail bread at “festive gatherings” in the Milwaukee area. The exact history of the dish is a bit murky, though the general consensus is the appetizer was brought across the pond by northern Europeans who settled in the state.
Justin Carlisle, the chef of Ardent Restaurant in Milwaukee, explained the dish stemmed out of necessity.
Growing up on a farm in Sparta, Wisconsin, about 30 miles east of La Crosse, Carlisle's family slaughtered some of the animals they raised during the holiday season.
"It’s a historical dish and it’s mostly a dish and let's be quite frank ... it’s trying to make something nice out of a world where we didn’t group up with a whole lot," he explained, adding normally they would sell the animals they raised. "To be able to keep these parts for ourselves, we wanted to share them for the holidays."
To this day, Carlisle's restaurant serves a version of the dish, though he said it's somewhat elevated from the traditional cannibal sandwich.
"We’ve had a lot of people come to our restaurant and not shied away from you know, raw beef," he said, adding that "fewer than five people" have turned down that course over the past several years. "It's never going anywhere."
He explained that to him, the cannibal sandwich represents something much more than an upper Midwest oddity. It's a "thoughtful" dish that represents sharing in the community.
"Don’t judge. You know, it is somebody’s heritage, it is somebody’s upbringing," he said. "If you don’t agree with it, be open about it, and accept that you don’t have to agree or eat it. But it is a culture, it’s part of people's culture."
According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, a total of eight bacterial outbreaks have been reported in the state since 1986 as a result of eating raw ground beef, including a large salmonella outbreak involving more than 150 people during December 1994.
In a 2018 statement, the U.S. Department of Agriculture encouraged people to cook meat fully all the time and when it comes to cannibal sandwiches, to try a “safe alternative” of just cooking the ground beef with the same toppings.