When we talk of comfort food and memories we often think of returning to something familiar, a pattern something repeated, something not unlike a groove in a much-loved LP. We yearn for that which we already know, but for me two of my most pleasant and productive culinary excursions revolve around steak tartare, something I neither order nor have the opportunity to order on any frequent basis.
Aside from bad hostel pizza served by stick figures in wigs and fast food from imbisses, my first restaurant meal in Budapest came a few days into my tenure at a wonderful joint near Moskva tér.
Our first outing came only days earlier. I'd checked into a hostel and then went by the school to notify them of my arrival in the city and to find out about my apartment. Along the way I was passed on a phone message by my landlord from one of my classmates, who, to keep a long story short, went to a nearby college and had invited me out to dinner. I ended up joining her and several other expats at a restaurant frequented by expat journalists -- the American presence was considerable but not overwhelming in 1995 -- for one of the English-language papers (the now-defunct Budapest Sun), and by the end of the night we had the (stereo)typical Gypsy violinists surrounding our table.
But a few nights later: the restaurant was a bit more low-key and while there were some foreigners there, it was mainly occupied (still ... this would change over the years) by working and middle class locals. The tables were long like picnic tables and nearly communal. Seating was on benches. The waitstaff found a free area large enough for our party of nearly a dozen, and we found ourselves seated with a lone, bulky, middle-aged Hungarian man.
We perused the menus. None of us were particularly adventurous at this point, and while I'd already lived abroad a significant amount of time, most of my peers had not. None of us had been to Hungary, and none of us spoke the language. I opted that night -- and several after that! -- for the "pulyka hawaii" ("Hawaiian turkey"), which gave me a turkey cutlet, cubed fried potatoes, and a tasty and slightly tangy sauce accented by pineapple (the "Hawaii" part). For years after I'd seek out this restaurant, usually on my own, but by my last visit to Budapest in 2003 the taste had become merely an echo and nostalgia. I was going through the motions.
Memory was better than mastication.
A roommate began to order the steak tartare. Who doesn't love steak. As he pointed it out to the waiter our silent Hungarian co-diner spoke up, "You realize that steak tartare is raw?" My roommate had not, and quickly changed his choice to something more middle-of-the-road. We then struck up a conversation with this Hungarian man, who had spent years working in Detroit, where he picked up his excellent English as well as a love of jazz. He played saxophone in a band. Months later said roommate and I found ourselves one chill and gray day near the parliament building during a political rally with nationalist overtones, which struck me as perhaps the first time I felt dangerously out of my element, and it was one of the first times I found myself thinking about mobs as emergent properties separate from the individuals out of which they were composed. There at that rally we saw our Hungarian dining mate once again, but he didn't seem to recognize us, and no words were exchanged. In a city of a couple million it was still a strange re-encounter.
But if he hadn't interrupted that earlier night my roommate would have ordered and perhaps eaten steak tartare. Since he didn't, I would have to wait some time before ever seeing or experiencing it.
A. January 29th NPR.org is running a story -- "Raw Beef Kibbeh Blamed in Salmonella Outbreak. Is Steak Tartare Next?" www.npr.org/blogs/thesal
-- that brought steak tartare to mind again.
When I can source my beef locally -- look at how we've made 'source' into a common verb, not just part of business-jargon -- I feel confident in making medium-rare hamburgers. Medium is just ... gray ... and "well done"? Where's the beef flavor? That's what I tell myself. As a child we 'sourced' our beef locally; we raised it ourselves. But back then I never ate my steaks rare (let alone raw!), even though some relatives did. The bloodier the better, they'd say.
Even if that dripping red was not blood.
Food safety was always on my mind. If we had canned vegetables we should look at the lids; did they bulge? If so they were not to be eaten as they could be contaminated with botulism. Later I learned that even a little botulism could be deadly. Later still I learned that those 'toadstools' -- which some ( books.google.com/books?i
) treat as a corruption of 'Todstuhl' or 'stool of death' -- could, depending on their variety, result in certain liver failure and death. We learned about the wonders of pasteurization. That we should cook poultry at least to one temperature to ensure it was safe, pork to another but lower to avoid threat of trichinosis, and so on. The idea of eating raw beef never crossed my mind.
B. And yet there was nothing particularly strange about raw meat or beef/stead tartare, even if I excluded the eating of raw meat by predators. Until that trip to a Budapest restaurant "tartar" meant, for me, tartar sauce, a creamy and mayonnaisey sauce to go with fish. It's what I expected on my Filet-O-Fish and with anything from Skippers. Only later did I learn of the Tatars of the steppe.
As for steak tartare, as we think of it -- as either a French or Eastern European dish -- it's usually of beef or of horse, raw and finely chopped or minced. On top onion, capers, and a raw egg yolk are served, though evidently the egg-on-top variety, now the iconic image, was at once point referred to as "steak à l'Americaine". And there is no actual/historical connection to Tatar cuisine.
Similarly it is hard to find good evidence for the claim that Attila's men, Mongols, or Tartars placed raw meat under their saddles to tenderize it, but it's an oft-repeated claim.
 Steak tatare (Wikipedia) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St
(the main entry is bare and direct, well-sourced, etc., but the 'Talk' page is full of wonderful insanity, just-so stories, hearsay, and so on!)
 Attila the Hun and Steak Tartar www.schonwalder.org/Menu
(a site full of *questionable* history ... but fascinating for it myth-making)
 The brutal past of steak tartar cookingrosemary.hubpages
(similarly interesting but short on facts)
 The History of Hamburgers - From the Saddle to the Drive up bbq.about.com/cs/hamburg
(this repeats the 'origins of steak tartar' myth without providing a good, direct source, but it's otherwise interesting)
C. 'Not cooked by fire' does not mean 'uncooked', depending on what you mean by 'cook'.
When it comes to protein -- in particular meats -- we're dealing with two difference processes that are often intertwined but not the same. We often cook in order to kill potential pathogens (bacteria, worms or other parasites), and this traditionally requires temperatures in excess of 140F, depending on the meat and pathogen. But if we want to refer to meat as 'cooked', what's important is the state of the protein and whether it has been denatured. Consider the transformation that happens to egg whites as they transition from clear to cloudy to white as heat is applied. While cooking with heat is 'our' 'usual' method another significant alternative is acid, as is the case in ceviche.
"Denaturing, and therefore coagulation, also takes place when proteins are exposed to strongly acidic substances. This most often happens with dairy products; it's why milk curdles when you put orange juice in it. That may not sound like such a good thing to you, but if you substitute vinegar for the orange juice and then drain off the liquid, that's how you make a fresh cheese like ricotta.
"The same thing also happens if protein is exposed to an extremely alkaline substance - though I can't think of any that tastes good - or even just to air. Air-induced coagulation takes the longest, but it's one of the reasons that meat stored in the refrigerator darkens and turns hard if it's not wrapped carefully (outside the refrigerator, of course, it would spoil before it ever firmed)."
 how to cook without heat apps.exploratorium.edu/c
 Cooking without heat forums.xkcd.com/viewtopi
 Cooking Without Heat: Acide Does It For Ceviche articles.sun-sentinel.co
D. Nearly a year before that first steak tartare incident I had sushi (as specifically sashimi) for the first time. Our entire literature seminar packed up one night -- the night that "Star Trek Generations" was set to open -- and left campus for our professor's house for a three-part treat: seminar, sushi, and Star Trek.
Since then I've become a huge fan of sushi in a variety of flavors and preparations. That steak tartare remained 'unappetizing' was seemingly more one of cognitive dissonance than a matter of real taste or experience. I was 'introduced' to carpaccio -- Italian, and thinly-sliced and marinated fish -- and crudo (similar) via cooking shows like 'Top Chef'.
E. Today my perverse interest, perhaps following up on Veggie Patch's rather tasty 'meatless meatballs', as in finding 'vegan steak tartare'. Isn't that in some way oxymoronic or a matter of defeating the purpose? one might inquire.
But while Google does not know all, it suggests much.
One blog post relates the tale of deciding to make a tartare for a vegan -- using lentils as the protein -- and in the end creating what was basically a guacamole dish. It was inspired by another chef's "Steak Tartar for Vegetarian", though it's to be noted that unlike a tartare it's not raw, as the lentils are cooked.
 Guacamole with lentils: Vegan's Steak Tartare vegangifts.blogspot.com/
 Morning Links: Vegan Beef Tartare Edition </link> galleristny.com/2012/05/21799/ </link>
 Recipe: Vegetarian tartare health.heraldtribune.com
 Raw Vegan Portobello and Beet Tartare quicheaweek.wordpress.co
(this one, along with the lentil dish, seems rather appetizing)
Over a decade after that experience in Budapest I found myself having my first steak tartare.
It was a first date.
We met across town at the wine bar at which she worked. As I waited in the bar area I wisely did not order a beer. She brought a wonderful red and we paid the corking feed. She got the manager's discount on the food; I covered the generous tip. We also splurged for caviar, another first for me, and our meal consisted entirely of shared appetizers, all things usually beyond my means or my inspiration to try.
It was not a last date, but it didn't last, either.
Yet two of my most memorable meals were centered not around comfort foods but rather dishes I would not normally have picked for myself.
This is not a fable; morals are best left unstated.