First off, you may be wondering why I am talking about steak tartare on a Jewish-Viennese cultural food blog: Is it some rite of passage, an infamous entry gate to cannibalism? Will I speak about two raw-meat-eating Jews, Freud and Lanzmann, to address some anti-Semitic medieval stereotypes of Jews feeding on brave Christians, preferably innocent children, and little babies?
Or could tartare have to do with the Freudian spin I tend to incorporate in my food stories?
As stated in the title, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Bernhard, Austria’s greatest post-world-war-two writer, and Claude Lanzmann, the French director of the monumental nine hours documentary Shoa, the most important movie about the extermination of European Jewry, have one thing in common: steak tartare.
Two of them are secular Jews. All of them are atheists.
None of them are cannibals or vegetarians.
Two are from Austria, and all three are famous and love steak tartare.
So, why steak tartare?
About a hundred years ago, Sigmund Freud was eating steak tartare for breakfast every day, a fact which his cook and long-time servant, Paula Fichtl, recorded in her diaries. (She was in the service of the Freud family from 1929 until the death of Anna Freud in 1982.)
We know that Freud had a bit of steak tartare every morning, or at least in his later years, when his increasingly severe jaw cancer made it difficult to chew or even talk. Freud had to undergo several troublesome operations, and eventually ended up with a prosthesis which kept his oral and nasal cavities separated. Apparently, it was quite difficult and painful for him to insert and remove the prosthesis, and, as Ernest Jones describes in The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, it was a “monstrous thing.”
It’s easy to see, then, why Freud would want puréed and finely minced food.
But what’s puzzling is why his wife, Martha, who was firmly in charge of the household and thus of all things going on in the kitchen, would permit a raw bloody piece of meat, hashed or not, to be served to her husband. It would have been a rather shocking thing to someone like her, having been raised to keep kosher in a quite pious home and for whom, thus, blood is unacceptable in food and must be removed before consumption.
Freud firmly objected to kosher rules, and throughout their time together, had strongly opposed any form of religious ritual in their Viennese home. However, due to her upbringing as a Jewish housewife, Martha would have had her objections to serving her husband a simple heap of raw meat bloody at that. Even if it were from raw kosher meat, it’s the looks of it that must have bothered her.
Also, it was probable that she would buy the meat downstairs at Berggasse 19 at Siegmund Kornmehl’s non-kosher butcher shop — did she go there, or did she order from the kosher branch at number 15 instead, without the knowledge of her husband? Don’t forget, the first thing she did after her husband died was light Shabbos candles again for the first time after all those years of marriage.
Here in Vienna a hundred years later, even my mother cannot serve any piece of meat until it’s well done; a pinkish steak cooked medium rare wouldn’t be acceptable to her. In a Viennese middle-class context back in Freud’s times, it was customary to simmer or roast meat until it was completely fork-tender. Meat must be cooked “to death,” so to speak, until there’s absolutely no blood (life) left inside.
Meanwhile, steak tartare was nonetheless served to Sigmund Freud in a bloody mound, together with his customary soft-boiled egg. In such a Viennese bourgeois setting like Freud’s home, as well as in classic Viennese coffee houses, the soft-boiled eggs were served peeled in a glass. They are themselves a symbol of virility. Add to that the myth, legends, and imagery associated with steak tartare, and we see plenty of male power, in a symbolic sense. But more on that later.
The history of steak tartare is charged with myths. But contrary to popular belief, it has nothing to do with the barbarous Tartars, the Turco-Mongol, semi-nomadic warriors, or their horses. Legend has it that the meat was put under the Tartar’s saddle to tenderize it.
But historians tell us that this was not done to tenderize the meat, since the body heat generated by the horses — not to mention the actual sweat — would have rendered the raw meat unfit for human consumption. The meat was in fact placed between the saddle and the horse’s back, but for another reason: to heal the horse’s sores.
So, this isn’t a story about Mongols, Tartars or their horses.
A more plausible way the raw meat dish got its name is that, according to the Larousse Gatronomique, its historical accompaniment was tartare sauce, equally of French and not Tartare origin — which by the way was a much more subtle mix than its contemporary manifestation.
The deconstruction of tartare sauce gives almost all of steak tartare’s ingredients: egg, chopped onions or shallots, capers, chopped parsley and occasionally chopped pickled gherkins. It is said that it is this presence of gherkins, once upon a time strongly associated with Eastern European cuisine, that gave the sauce the exotic Eastern name Tartare.
The legend of the Tartar’s involvement in the origin of the dish was also fueled by the fact that steak tartare was originally made from horse meat, and the Tartars were these mythical equestrian people.
Somehow in the late nineteenth century, French home cooks developed a strong liking for raw horse meat — most likely because of its relative lack of parasites. Thus, it was definitely more suitable for raw consumption, but absolutely not kosher. At that time, Sigmund Freud would have been studying with Professor Charcot of the Salpêtrière. He was often invited at the illustrious professor’s home for dinner parties.
As a staunch atheist, Freud evidently didn’t care about kosher food. Thus, it is quite likely that he picked up this new French culinary passion at his Professor’s colorful and ostentatious Parisian Belle Époche dinner parties. This assumption is especially plausible if we consider that Freud’s admiration for Charcot led him to name one of his sons Martin after the great French neurologist.
Putting raw meat bound with raw egg into your mouth and swallowing it is a rite of passage that could have arrived with a push to Freud at one of these parties. Charcot, or one of the other guests for that matter, was worldlier — or more Parisian — than Freud, and could very well have urged him to try this thing en vogue.
Either way, we know that Freud had steak tartare every day in his home city of Vienna, where beef reigned. At that time, it was coming directly from the herds of the Hungarian plains to Vienna. This is why all of Vienna’s signature dishes are beef-based: tafelspitz, goulash and schnitzel (veal).
Steak tartare also figures on the breakfast menu of Freud’s purported favorite Viennese coffee house, Café Landtmann. It is not unheard of in Vienna to have steak tartare in the morning today, though it’s not exactly trendy. The dish is more likely to be found on lunch and dinner menus since its recent comeback. But it’s nice to see steak tartare on the breakfast menu in this café of all cafés.
Restaurants first started to offer steak tartar in Paris in the early twentieth century under the name “beefsteack (sic) à l’Américaine,” when it was already accepted to prepare it with beef. (Thus, as beef is a kosher animal, there’s even kosher steak tartare ever since.) Although steak tartare is a raw French thing, ironically the French called it “steak à l’Americaine,” or “steak the American way.”
It’s not clear why, in France, where steak tartare first appeared, the dish was called “à l’Americaine.” My guess is that it was associated with America because of a popular French belief that Americans — and most non-French — don’t know how to cook and consequently must eat things raw, or as cowboys in a movie, barbecued over a fire. This idea of a “savage American flair” allowed the French to add all kinds of things they wouldn’t normally use, like Tabasco sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and even the unthinkable haute cuisine taboo, ketchup.
Today, steak tartare is called “biftec tartar” in France and “filet Americain” in Belgium. It is still standard at Parisian brasseries and bistros, typically served alongside crispy, piping hot French fries as a strong crunchy and warm contrast. Steak tartare might be presented in many different ways: Sometimes, it’s finely puréed or just simply ground, sometimes roughly diced or finely cubed, and still other times its accompaniment comes already mixed in so as to ensure consistency in the preparation. As we learn in Belgium’s Best Beef: a history of filet Américain (in Eaten: The Food History Magazine, Vol 3), the latter was done by one of Brussels’ most famous “filet Americain” chefs, chef Niels from the restaurant Canterbury. Usually, the accompaniment is presented on the side for the customer to mix on their own, but sometimes the waiter will prepare the mix for you at your table.
Purists may be shocked to find out that, in recent years, the recipe has not been set in stone. Even in traditionalist Vienna, traditionalism has been tossed overboard, and a wave of reinterpretations exists on menus all over the world. Still, the central star remains the raw-meat-and-the-egg-yolk gory amalgam.
In Roland Barthes’ 1957 article, Steak and French Fries, the French literary theorist suggests that the reason steak tartare became fashionable was that eating it went against a romantic association of sensitivity and sickishness. It was a culinary statement of more modern times. As such in the late nineteenth century, for Charcot, the professor of anatomical pathology, and Freud, the positivist, it was time to look at the facts of life straight on.
Here’s what Roland Barthes writes about steak tartare:
There are in this preparation all the germinating states of matter: the bloody purée and the glairy of the egg, a whole concert of soft and lively substances, a sort of significant compendium of images of pre-parturition.
Thus, the association with the act of giving birth.
To Roland Barthes, after the actual death of the author as the creator of the text, the matter, meaning the text, is giving birth to the author. In other words, you are what you eat — or even better, you become what you eat as a variant of Brillat-Savarin’s wisdom:
Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.
Thomas Bernhard, the Austrian postmodern novelist and dramatist was a well-known steak tartare enthusiast. His 1972 play, Der Ignorant und der Wahnsinnige (The Ignorant and the Insane), features the protagonists sitting down to steak tartare. Herein, he uses the dish as a metaphor — not for the act of giving birth but, on the contrary, as a symbol of destruction and self-annihilation.
The play is a head-spinning mix of a monologue which recounts the steps of a human autopsy, and protagonists eating raw meat at an upscale restaurant. A symbiotic but dangerously mauled father-daughter relationship is central to the drama.
Claude Lanzmann has a symbiotic attachment to steak tartar that relates to his oedipal urges and simultaneously, via his mother and her food, his stance toward Jewishness. The world-renowned director of Shoa, French Resistance fighter, and chief editor of one of the world’s leading literary magazines, Les Temps Modernes, (founded by Jean-Paul Sartre), recounts his experience with the tartare dish in Le lièvre de Patagonie (The Patagonian Hare).
In the first episode of a touching series of ten interviews with Claude Lanzmann by Laure Adler for French Radio France Culture, he reveals how his beloved mother made him enjoy the taste of ground, raw horse meat. She would serve it to him and his siblings on Thursdays, when they would go to see her in her small pre-world-war two Parisian maid’s room. She lived here separately from his father, (Lanzmann emphasizes that he was never cross with his mother for leaving his father), and lunch was always tartare of ground raw horse meat.
Little Claude’s fondness for it, presumably also due to the love for, and attachment to, his mother, was naturally so great that he ate the raw horse meat with nothing but salt and pepper — exactly as she had taught him — at least four times a week throughout the rest of his life.
With the mother in mind, I’ve got an intriguing idea about Freud’s attachment to steak tartare. We know that Freud kept a happy memory of the first three years of his childhood in Freiberg, the little town in Moravia where he was born, before the family moved to Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In this remote place and time, Freud had a fall from a stool while trying to reach for some sweet treats in the back of the kitchen — under his mother’s skirts, so to speak — which resulted in a terrible cut. He spilled a lot of his blood in this incident.
According to the literature, a (now-famous) one-eyed local doctor tended to his gaping wound. This left a scar on his jaw which he could feel all his life. Coincidentally, it is at this exact spot that the founder of psychoanalysis would later develop his oral cancer, making it difficult for him to eat and to speak. He fell, hurt himself, and bled so much while trying to reach for the goodies, but kept no memory of this terrible accident. He could remember the misfortune only because of the scar left on his jaw.
Freud’s lifelong cigar addiction fueled his work, but was an important risk factor in the development of his oral cancer.
As Peter Gay summarizes in Freud: A Life for Our Time:
After all, every cigar was another irritant, a little step toward another painful intervention. We know that he admitted being addicted to cigars, and that he thought smoking ultimately a substitute for that prototype of all addictions, masturbation. Plainly there were depths to his mind that his self-analysis had never reached, conflicts it had never been able to resolve.
When he was told to quit smoking on account of his cancer, his continuous and remorseless cigar consumption, which he felt was necessary for his concentration, did most certainly manifest his death wish. For him, a cigar was never just a cigar, but something that was both phallic and lethal. The eating of this bloody wounded meat purée must have had something undeniably regressive for Freud — at least unconsciously. Just as the one-eyed doctor had healed him, was he going to heal himself with this self-prescribed diet made up of his own bloody childhood memory from the back of mother’s kitchen?
Thus, to Freud, steak tartare was more than a birth-related regressive intake, succumbing to some repressed urges. It was the expression of a wish for a remedy, a fearless transgressing of inhibitions and taboos, a declaration of war, the leitmotif and program set out for each and every day of work ahead.
It was a real breakfast for an explorer, for a Sigmund Freud.
But there remains the one lurking question. This is more of a contemporary problem though, one that might spoil your appetite or make the hurdle of swallowing that raw mound of bloody meat even more difficult. The issue at hand is whether one should eat animals at all. In light of such an “in-your-face” dish, this is almost literally a skeleton in the closet.
Freud’s wife, Martha, would have probably been interested to know that today many rabbis among the more orthodox have ruled against vegetarianism for animal rights reasons, and do in fact hold that meat consumption on Shabbat and holidays is an obligation. Therefore, some pious Jews who are vegetarians, or vegans, will still eat meat on those occasions.
Some animal rights activists, not just at PETA, but including Jewish celebrities such as Nobel Prize laureate and vegetarian Isaac Bashevis Singer, have even made shocking comparisons between the industrialized murder of the Jews of Europe and the mass killing of animals under horrific circumstances. Another example is Viennese pre-world-war two star photographer Madame d’Ora. After surviving the horrors of the extermination of European Jewry hidden in the South of France, she turned her camera away from fashion studio portraiture, and towards mounds of eviscerated animal flesh and blood in the big modern slaughterhouses.
This connection is obviously anachronistic for Sigmund Freud. But Albert Einstein was a vegetarian, as were other notable Jews of that era, including authors Shmuel Yosef Agnon and Franz Kafka.
More recently best-selling author Jonathan Safran Foer took a strong stand for vegetarianism with his book Eating Animals. There’s, in fact, a rather new kind of mainstream taboo associated with consuming meat.
Recipe: Classic Steak Tartare for a Viennese Coffee-House
This is the one dish where you should be very careful which meat you chose. Get the best, freshest, lean high-quality meat (organic, if possible) from a reputable and trustworthy source.
Steak tartare (yields 2 appetizers or 1 main course):
2 high-quality raw egg yolks
150g / 5.29oz high-quality lean beef
grapeseed oil or olive oil to coat the prepared meat
15g / 0.53oz mustard (French Dijon or real tarragon mustard like Austrian “Estragon Senf”)
7g / 0.25oz shallot or red onion, minced
7g / 0.25oz capers, minced
6g / 0.21oz gherkins (optional)
5g / 0.18oz chives or parsley, minced
2g / 0.11oz salt
1g / 0.07oz black pepper, freshly ground
a few dashes Worcestershire sauce as needed
a few dashes Tabasco as needed
a tsp Ketchup as needed
lemon juice freshly squeezed as needed
lamb’s lettuce or other small leafy green as garnish (optional)
- Chill beef overnight in the coolest section of your refrigerator until very well chilled. (Don’t put the meat in the freezer, or just for a very brief moment, as freezing would deteriorate the meat’s taste and texture!)
- If you want your meat to be ground rather than hand cut, you should place all parts of the meat grinder in the freezer for a minimum of half an hour.
- Grind the meat, or dice it by hand very finely or roughly, according to your liking.
- Lightly coat the meat with the oil, as you would with the leaves of a salad to protect them from being cooked by the acidity of some of the ingredients.
- Mix all ingredients with the meat or place the ingredients separately around the meat.
- If you didn’t mix in the egg yolk, you may create a crater with the back of a spoon and place it on top.
- Serve immediately with crispy toasted bread. (I’ve got a speedy old-Vienna-style no-knead bread recipe.)