Swiss steak

First, it’s American.

Second, it’s simple, homey food, designed to use tougher and cheaper cuts of beef.

Third, it’s unclear where the modifier Swiss comes from.

Fourth, its preparation involves two cooking techniques that are used in other dishes. One of these is tenderizing and flattening by pounding, a technique also used in the preparation of elegant dishes of veal, beef, pork, or chicken in the Schnitzel / Milanesa family.

Fifth, the other technique is braising: searing meat and then cooking it very slowly with liquid (and, usually, vegetables) in a closed container. Sharing this technique makes Swiss steak and pot roast of beef culinary cousins.

The dish. Swiss steak on noodles, a standard combination in the household of my childhood:


(#1) Delicious, but not especially photogenic; note tomatoes and green peppers

Up close, the egg noodles that were the standard starch accompaniment in my childhood:


(#2)

Some descriptions of the dish, starting with The New York Times Cook Book, ed. by Craig Claiborne, 1961 (pencilled note by Ann Daingerfield (Zwicky)):

(#3)
(#4)

First the pounding, using the edge of a heavy plate, then the braising. The tomatoes are obligatory; with the chopped onion, the (optional) celery and carrots create a mirepoix in the Dutch oven (see my 7/5/18 posting “mirepoix”); and ADZ added chopped green peppers to the vegetable mix.

First: American. From the OED:

Swiss steak  n. U.S. a steak (usually round) cooked by dipping in flour, pounding and braising, and served with vegetables; hence, a steak (usually a less tender cut) suitable for cooking in this way.

1932 E. Craig Cooking with E. Craig 175 Swiss Steak… Take a..2 pound slice of steak. Sprinkle thickly with flour. Pound… Brown steak on both sides.

1947 L. P. De Gouy Gold Cookery Bk. vi. 345 Swiss Steak. The original name of this recipe was ‘Schmor Braten.’ It is three centuries old. [German Schmorbraten (specifically Rinderschmorbraten) ‘pot roast’ (specifically ‘pot roast of beef’)]

1973 Black Panther 12 May 10/1 Safeway was charged with..mislabeling swiss steaks as round steak for an extra profit of ten cents per pound.

Recipe from my 1946 edition of Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking (the first edition was in 1931).


(#5) Note the options on vegetables. Meanwhile, the dish can be served straight or with almost any starch (white rice was an alternative in the household of my childhood), but baked potatoes are an unusual choice

The dish, with this name, seems to have appeared, in the U.S., around 1930.

Second: homey and thrifty. The dish isn’t in the Larousse Gastronomique, and there’s no recipe in the Gourmet cookbooks, or (of course) in Beck / Bertholle / Child, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It’s neither European nor fancy.

Commenters on the net often refer to it as “comfort food” and offer recollections of their mom’s cooking. Because of the long cooking times, it’s rarely offered by diners. (It’s not tricky to make, but it does take a lot of time.)

The pounding beforehand (which tenderizes the meat) and those long cooking times allow the cook to use cheaper cuts of beef; like so much comfort food it’s also thrifty. A point stressed by James Beard, in his Theory and Practice of Good Cooking (1984), p. 143, in the section on braising meat, where Beard also reflects on the name: as Beard notes, the composite isn’t subsective (Swiss steak isn’t steak, though it’s made from steak) and it its not predicational (Swiss steak isn’t Swiss — on subsective / non-subsective and predicational / non-predicational, see my 7/10/18 posting “Swiss cheese isn’t Swiss”:


(#6) An unusual Swiss steak recipe, in that it lacks tomatoes and all other vegetables except chopped onions; Beard suggests serving it with plain boiled potatoes or boiled buttered noodes

Third: Swiss. The Wikipedia entry introduces two further threads: smothered as an alternative to Swiss; and a proposed etymology for Swiss that takes it back to an industrial practice for smoothing cloth or paper between rollers. From the entry:

Swiss steak is meat, usually beef, prepared by means of rolling or pounding, and then braising in a cooking pot of stewed tomatoes, mushroom sauce, or some other sauce, either on a stove / log (cooker) or in an oven. In England and in some parts of the United States such as the Deep South, it is also called smothered steak. The dish does not stem from Switzerland, as the name suggests, but from the technique of tenderizing by pounding or rolling called “swissing”.

Smothered is a vivid term (now conventionalized) for cooking in a closed container. From OED2:

adj. smothered:  3. Cooked in a close vessel.

1748 in Omond Arniston Mem. (1887) 108  Dinner… Roast goose. Smothered rabbits.

1809 B. H. Malkin tr. A. R. Le Sage Adventures Gil Blas IV.  x. iii. 52 A smothered rabbit on one side, and a fricasseed capon on the other.

1877 E. S. Dallas Kettner’s Bk. of Table 369 Smothered Rabbit. This is the name given in England to boiled rabbit. It is smothered with a white onion sauce.

1906 Mrs. Beeton’s Bk. Househ. Managem. (rev. ed.) xxiii. 719 (heading) Chicken, Smothered.

1948 Good Housek. Cookery Bk.  ii. 237 Smothered tongues… Cook preferably in a double saucepan or in a basin in a steamer.

1975 I. Melchior Sleeper Agent (1976) iii. 290 A juicy steak heaped with smothered onions.

On to swissing, which the Wikipedia article treats as a form of a purported verb swiss, from Wiktionary:

verb swiss: (transitive) To prepare (meat, fabric, etc.) by rolling or pounding in order to soften it.

Wiktionary, like Wikipedia and like Urban Dictionary, is user-created. Urban Dictionary places no restrictions whatsoever on what appears in it, so it’s a fertile territory for raucous invention, unconstrained by actual usage; Wiktionary, like Wikipedia, strives to provide checks on its content, but sometimes bold unverified assertions about lexical entries get through, so long as they sound reasonable, as the definition above does.

But there is no verb swiss in the OED (or, as far as I can tell, in any other Oxford dictionary) or in the Merriam-Webster dictionaries, or in the Random House dictionaries. It’s a ghost entry, an invention — an ingenious one, and no doubt well-intentioned, but nevertheless an invention. (Several friends have remarked that it would be a cool verb to have in figurative uses: Bruno and the boys will swiss you into submission, Navy totally swissed Army on Thanksgiving Day.)

[Digression. Well, of course, there is a verb Swiss, with close or distant Helvetian associations, a verbing of the Adj/N Swiss. Actually, lots of verbs Swiss. Dictionaries don’t list them, because they don’t list nonce verbings unless these become widespread in some specialized sense. Otherwise, the Adj/N Swiss is available for conversion to a verb meaning ‘to become Swiss, to make (s.o. or s.th.) Swiss, to act Swiss, to supply with Swiss things or people, to treat (s.o.) like a Swiss person’ etc.; and also ‘to add Swiss cheese to’ and the like. So we get the on-line magazine Newly Swissed:

Newly Swissed is a digital entertainment magazine about Switzerland, first published in January 2010. It covers topics related to culture, design, events, oddities and tourism in Switzerland.

Newly Swissed was launched in 2010 by Dimitri Burkhard, a digital marketing expert. The magazine incorporated as Newly Swissed GmbH in 2015. At the time, it was the only online magazine about Switzerland written in English. Newly Swissed is frequently quoted by major publications on the subject of expat life in Switzerland.

In the early stages, observations about Swiss lifestyle and culture served as the main sources of content. Now, the magazine covers a range of topics in depth, from architecture to oddities, and from tourism to advice on in Switzerland. The publication is primarily concerned with serving the international community in Switzerland, as well as the Swiss population living abroad.

(From the magazine we learn that there’s an ex-pat Swiss community in Wales. Who knew?)

And the Never Been Swissed website:

(#6)

I’m Nicole and my husband and I are spending two-ish years abroad as American expats in Geneva, Switzerland. A place (that before November 2017) neither of us had ever visited before. Ever. We’d never been Swissed 😉 the title is so bad it’s good! Right?!

None of this has anything to do with a putative verb swiss that has to do with pounding or rolling.]

Two sources for the idea that Swiss steak is really swiss steak, containing a pound/roll verb swiss. One is an attempt to make sense of /swɪs stek/: what could the first element /swɪs/ be if not the Adj Swiss? Well, it could be a variant (with the “final t/d-deletion” of /ajs ti/ ice tea for /ajst ti/ iced tea) of a PSP /swɪst/ swissed, a form of a verb /swɪs/ swiss that has something significant to do with the preparation of Swiss steak — either with the tenderizing by pounding or rolling or with the long slow cooking in a closed container. That’s a plausible story, but then in word and phrase histories, plausible stories are thick on the ground — plentiful, cheap, and easy to find. Why not invoke a talented Manhattan chef named Jonathan Swiss who cooked the very first Swiss steak and made it famous in the Roaring 20s? I mean, that could be true. It also could be true that the name came to Irma Bombeck in a dream, or that it has something to do with swizzle sticks (or better, with the noun swizzle ‘a mixed alcoholic drink, especially a frothy one of rum or gin and bitters’ (NOAD)), or (not) being swift, or that the name was originally swish steak (after one of the many gay men who’ve become famous as chefs and food writers, perhaps one known for engaging in anal intercourse — figurative pounding or rolling — with his male assistants) but was altered to Swiss steak for modesty’s sake.

But none of this would predict another salient feature of the Wiktionary definition: the reference to meat or fabric. That pretty much has to come from another source, namely a rare technical term from the fabric and paper industries that is in dictionaries, or at least the biggest ones (it’s not in NOAD2 or AHD5): the noun swissing. From OED2, the definition, with the only two cites given there:

noun swissing. Origin unascertained.

The calendering of bleached cloth by passing it between pairs of rollers after damping.

1888 A. Sansone Dyeing 223 Three bowl swizzing calender.

1910 Encycl. Brit. X. 379/1 The pieces are simply passed through for ‘swissing’, i.e. for the production of an ordinary plain finish.

To understand this entry, you need to know another technical term, the noun calender (note the spelling: not calendAr) and its verbing. From OED2:

verb calender: [etymologically related to cylinder] trans. To pass through a calender; to press (cloth, paper, etc.) between rollers [calenders], for the purpose of smoothing, glazing, etc.

(This one is in NOAD2 and AHD5.)

The first OED cite for swissing is from the technical literature of the fabric industry; the second is from the Encyclop(a)edia Britannica, but has the word in quotation marks to indicate that it’s industry jargon, which readers of the encyclopedia cannot be expected to know.

But, but, you counter: if there’s a noun swissing, there has to be a verb swiss, right? Well, no, and you should take notice of the fact that the OED explicitly does not relate swissing to a verb swiss, but marks its origin as “unascertained”. More generally, the existence of a noun in –ing doesn’t always entail the existence of a base verb: the noun shirting ‘fabric for making shirts’, for instance, is based on the noun shirt.

But even if the noun swissing is based on a verb swiss, there’s no guarantee that the verb has the meaning Wiktionary gives for it. Back to the world of nonce verbing.

English has a productive pattern of verbing onomatopoetic expressions denoting noises — giving tut-tut, shush, eek, etc. both as representations of noises and as verbs denoting the making of such a noise (They tut-tutted censoriously, Your constant eeking is driving me crazy, etc.). Once again, dictionaries won’t list such (shush-making) verbs.

All this is relevant to swissing because the origin of the noun might be in a shush-making verb, itself based on a representation of the sound made by a calender, while it’s calendering; note the spelling of the earliest cite, swizzing. (The rollers go swizz swizz. ) If so, the noun swissing is probably irrelevant to the story of Swiss steak.

But regardless of the history of swissing, the noun isn’t a great source for a verb swiss denoting a softening or tenderizing meat by pounding or rolling. First, swissing is designed to smooth paper or fabric, not to soften it. Second, at least in its earliest appearances, the noun occurs in British sources, while Swiss steak is an American thing. Third, it occurs in the technical literature in a domain far removed from cooking. Fourth, and crucially, this account is missing the chain of texts and contexts that would get us from the world of swissing paper and fabric around the turn of the 20th century to the world of American home cooking around 1930. What it looks like is someone casting around for an expression, any expression, with any similarity, however tenuous, in pronunciation and meaning to the Swiss of Swiss steak.

Look, I’m not saying that the noun swissing is not somehow involved in the etymology of Swiss steak. It might be so. But at the moment that’s just a cute story, without any evidence to back it up. It’s really no better than the story involving the sexual proclivities of American male authorities on cooking. And actually, no better than a story that ultimately connects the American comfort food to Switzerland, via the technique of pounding and flattening that is part of the preparation of some characteristic Swiss foods, like the veal dish described in my 6/27/18 posting “Swiss spin-off: Züricher Geschnetzelzeltes” (and part of other American dishes showing an influence from the food of German-speaking lands, as in my 4/12/18 posting “chicken fried chicken”). Or through some association with braising. Or tomatoes. Somewhere in all of this might be a tendency for some Americans to refer to some things of German origin as Swiss just because Swiss is tonier than German.

There’s a lot of culinary and cultural history to look at here, but I don’t have the tools to do the looking. I am, however, able to be sensibly dubious about what people have said so far.

Fourth: pounding. Of boneless meat. This cooking technique performs two different functions: it flattens a piece of meat to make it thinner and larger (and to make it elegant when sautéed). In this function it can be applied to meat that is already tender, like baby veal and breast of young chicken.

It also tenderizes tough meat by breaking down tough fibers. You can whomp the meat with the side of a cleaver or a plate, or use a (toothed) tool designed for the purpose. From Wikipedia:


(#7) A meat mallet of the style I’ve used since the early 60s

(#8) A more stylish meat mallet

A meat tenderizer, meat mallet, or meat pounder is a hand-powered tool used to tenderize slabs of meat in preparation for cooking. Although a meat tenderizer can be made out of virtually any object, there are three types manufactured specifically for tenderizing meat.

– The first, most common, is a tool that resembles a hammer or mallet made of metal or wood with a short handle and dual heads. One face of the tool is usually flat while the other has rows of pyramid-shaped tenderizers [teeth].

– The second form resembles a potato masher with a short handle and a large metal face that is either smooth or adorned with the same pyramid-shaped tenderizers as found in the first form.

– The third form is a blade tenderizer that has a series of blades or nails that are designed to puncture the meat and cut into the fibers of the muscle.

Tenderizing meat with the mallet softens the fibers, making the meat easier to chew and to digest. It is useful when preparing particularly tough cuts of steak, and works well when broiling or frying the meat. It is also used to “pound out” dishes such as chicken-fried steak, palomilla, or schnitzel, to make them wider and thinner.

Tenderizing can be accomplished in a number of ways; preparing Swiss steak uses the first three from this list:

– pounding

– marinating or cooking with acid (citrus juice, vinegar, red wine, tomato juice)

– slow cooking for a long time

– marinating or cooking with enzymes (papaya juice, pineapple juice, a commercial meat tenderizer, like Adolph’s)

– salting

– slicing thinly across the grain

Fifth: braising. From NOAD:

verb braise: [with object] fry (food) lightly [that is, brown or sear it] and then stew it [that is, bake it with liquid, and usually some chopped vegetables] slowly in a closed container

The closed containers can be of many sorts; one devoted piece of cookware is the Dutch oven:


(#9) Three styles of Dutch oven

(#10) The cast-iron combo of my household: a skillet, a fryer (or deep skillet), and (together) a Dutch oven

The world of braised beef dishes includes both pot roast and Swiss steak. A pot roast of beef uses a large piece of beef; Swiss steak uses smaller pieces of meat, tenderized and flattened by pounding or rolling, dredged in flour, and browned. Both are then cooked slowly with liquid (and usually with chopped vegetables) in a closed container. Swiss steak is usually cooked with chopped tomatoes or tomato sauce, and sometimes mushrooms as well.

A pot roast cooked with tomatoes is often referred to as Swiss steak pot roast, Swiss pot roast, or Swiss-style pot roast.

More detail on pot roast, from Wikipedia:

(#11)

Pot roast is a braised beef dish made by browning a roast-sized piece of beef before slow cooking the meat in a covered dish, sometimes with vegetables, in or over liquid. Tougher cuts such as chuck steak, boneless chuck steak, and 7-bone roast are popular cuts for this technique. While the toughness of the fibers makes them unsuitable for oven roasting, slow cooking tenderizes the meat as the liquid exchanges some of its flavor with the beef. The result is tender, succulent meat and a rich liquid that lends itself to gravy.

In North America, where it is also known as “Yankee pot roast”, the dish is often served with vegetables such as carrots, potatoes and onions simmered in the cooking liquid. Pot roast is an American variation of the French dish boeuf à la mode that has been modified by influences from German immigrants.

On the French version, from Wikipedia:

Beef à la mode, or bœuf à la mode (“beef in style”), is a French version of what is known in the United States as pot roast. It is a way to prepare a tougher cut of beef (rich in connective tissue, and in older recipes often lardoned). The dish is prepared by first browning the beef in oil, lard, or bacon fat. Some recipes include a preliminary marinating step, where the beef is marinated in a combination of wine and brandy before browning.

The browned beef is then braised in a liquid composed primarily of red wine with garlic and root vegetables (usually celery [or celeriac], carrots and onions) and herbs such as thyme, bay, or celery seed. Many recipes add tomatoes or canned tomato sauce, while others add beef broth and/or brandy or other distilled spirits. In some older recipes the addition of a calf’s foot or soup bones would add gelatin to the braising liquid, which serves to thicken the resulting sauce.

To finish the dish, the braised beef is removed and set aside to rest. Meanwhile, the braising liquid is strained and reduced to a sauce. The beef is then sliced and served with the sauce made from the braising liquid.

3 Responses to “Swiss steak”

  1. Barry Popik Says:

    Did you say that Swiss Steak appeared by that name in the U.S. in 1930?

    http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/ads-l/2001-December/019189.html

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I did say that the name appeared in the U.S. around 1930, but I did not say that this was its first appearance — only the first appearace that I found in a net search. As I say repeatedly on this blog, I am not a lexicographer and do not have the resources to do proper lexicographical research. So I depend on lexicographers to provide both textual evidence and cultural context for usages, as you have done here:

      Barry Popik on Linguist List 12/22/01
      SWISS STEAK (continued)
      Jean Anderson’s AMERICAN CENTURY COOKBOOK (1997) highlights “Swiss Steak.” Pg. 91: “THE FIRST RECIPE I’ve been able to find for Swiss Steak appears in _Larkin Housewives’ Cook Book_ (1915).”
      “Swiss Steak” is in TABLE TALK, June 1911, pg. 308, and November 1911, pg. 612.
      From June 1911, pg. 308, col. 1:
      _Swiss Steak_
      One pound of steak, (Saturday, the third)(In the Daily Menus–ed.), one quart of flour, salt and pepper, four skined tomatoes, one sliced onion, water. Have the steak cut two inches thick, and pound into it the flour with the sanitary steak shredder. Put the steak into a skillet, with some (Col. 2–ed.) lard and brown on both sides. Then cover with water, adding the sliced onion, tomatoes sliced and cover closely and let simmer for three hours. Just before the steak is done add salt and pepper to taste. When done the gravy is already made and is delicious. Swiss steak, is best prepared with the sanitary steak shredder as it makes it so very tender, and very juicy. The shredder weighs half a pound, and may also be used for other purposes, that will readily suggest themselves to the intelligent housewife, as a fruit or vegetable chopper, potato masher or noddle cutter, each impression cutting a noodle twenty-four inches long. it is practically indestructible, and will last a lifetime.

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        On TABLE TALK:

        Table Talk: The National Food Magazine (Paul Pierce, ed.: Cooperstown NY: The Pierce Publishing Co.) was “the outstanding magazine culinary magazine in the nineties” [Mott, IV, p. 363] and was absorbed by National Food Magazine in 1916 and continued until July 1920

        So Barry Popik has gotten things back to 1911, still in the US.

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