My brother-in-law Tom, whose wife Millie died a year and a half ago, is visiting from Rockville, MD just days before his 74th birthday.
Twice every year for 41 years—on his birthday and on Father’s Day—Millie made Tom Creamed Chipped Beef. If I had known this, I might have phrased my question differently.
“Hey Tom, what’s your favorite dinner?” After all, a birthday boy should be able to choose.
“Creamed chipped beef.”
“Really? Um, what is that?”
“Well, I’ll show you. I’ve got the recipe in my wallet. Been carrying it around for years”. I’m not going to go into the reasons Tom’s been toting the recipe, scratched out onto a carefully folded little yellow sticky, everywhere he goes. Let’s just say that it is that important to him, and that maybe he wanted to be sure that no matter what—any time, any place—he would have it in the ready should a cook be willing.
I am a willing cook, but I have never had chipped beef nor seen it made. I can’t picture my Mom making anything with dehydrated beef and canned milk. And in my travels to rural diners and southern joints and roadside stands across America, I have somehow always overlooked chipped beef. I read Tom’s recipe, did a little research and some quick math.
The recipe comes from Tom’s grandmother, which means it dates back to World War II, when dairy and meat were scarce. Thus the canned rather then fresh milk, margarine instead of butter, and “dried beef”. The dried beef I bought (Hormel, a national brand), is sold in jars next to the Vienna Sausage and Spam. It is shaped like bologna, but is a darker brick red and much drier (though not as dry or greasy as salami). The slices are laid on top of each other and rolled, tube-like, to fit in the jar. It is highly processed and very, very salty (which is why rinsing it thoroughly is important).
It took me two tries to get it exactly right. On the first attempt I thought it was the most vial thing I’d ever tasted, but after the second batch, I understood why this could be a meat-eaters ultimate comfort food. It’s creamy and beefy and soft, and it soaks into the buttered toast on which it is served. This nice Jewish girl from Connecticut will even admit: it’s pretty darn good. And I’ll make it for Tom anytime, birthday or not, because anyone who carries around a recipe in their wallet with the eternal hope he’ll find a willing cook– well, he deserves it.
Creamed Chipped Beef
1 2.5 ounce jar dried beef
2 tablespoons margarine or unsalted butter
1 tablespoon cornstarch
8 ounces canned evaporated milk
white pepper to taste
2 slices white bread, toasted and buttered (with 1 teaspoon of butter)
1. Remove the beef from the jar but keep it rolled up. Slice the roll across into 1/4-wide strips. Place the beef in a strainer and run under cold water, tossing the meat until thoroughly rinsed. Pat dry.
2. Melt the margarine or butter (I used butter) in a skillet over medium heat. Add the cornstarch and stir until smooth. Add evaporated milk and beef and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture is slightly thicker than heavy cream, about 5-6 minutes. Stir in the pepper spoon over the toast.
Makes 1 large serving
Nutritional analysis per serving: 843 calories, 40 g protein, 61 g carbohydrates, 2 g fiber, 47 g fat, 31 g saturated fat, 3606 mg sodium
Note: The sodium is based on the un-rinsed measures; it may be closer to 2600 once rinsed– which is still more than an entire day’s worth).