Deviled Beef: or, The Nameless, Delicious Thing Peg Bracken Told Me to Make

When I bought a sirloin steak last Friday, I thought I was buying one nice, big, fat steak. I admit I wasn’t paying close attention to the details of the object, standing at the butcher counter. The meat weighed a little more than two pounds, which was what I was concerned about: I wanted leftovers.

What I didn’t realize, until rather late in the game — I had already broiled the entire slab of meat — was that what I really had was three separate steaks that happened to be attached to each other with these big webs of fat. I’m not complaining. The steak was delicious. But it did mean that when I went to slice the steak last Friday night, I had a small technical problem as one mini-steak separated itself from the rest of the meat and I came close to making a big mess on the counter with the dripping meat juices. It all turned out fine, don’t worry: I managed to flip everything onto the carving board and all the juices landed in the board’s channels, just the way they were supposed to. Nothing landed on, say, the filthy kitchen floor. And as it happened, the piece that had seceded from the United Pieces of Steak was just enough to serve the three of us comfortably on Friday night, and the two remaining pieces turned out to be just right for two other projects. I was vindicated, regarding my plans for leftovers, and the meat itself had done the portioning for me.

One leftover mini-steak was turned into nachos the other evening, as longtime readers may recall. And you longtime readers are now probably wondering, “What did you do with the last of the meat?”

At this juncture in the narrative, let us now remember Peg Bracken’s writings on the subject of leftover meat, in The I Hate to Cook Book.

Peg Bracken was, of course, a genius on the subject of what to do with leftover food, and the world owes her thanks on this matter. But the fact is, one of her suggestions regarding leftover beef is something that I’ve read a thousand times or more and never tried. It is this:

“And have you ground up a chunk of it with pickles and onion and celery and added some mayonnaise, as a spread for after-school sandwiches?”

To this, until recently, all I could ever say was, “No, why would I want to do that?” Not when I could do things like make chili or nachos or beef stroganoff out of my leftover beef! It wasn’t until recent years that I began to think, “That might be pretty good.” The younger Hausfrau — the pre-Hausfrau Hausfrau — always read this and thought, “I’m supposed to grind up meat with pickles? Are you insane?”

Well, I have been wrong.

Last night I took my last few ounces of sirloin steak and threw it into the food processor with a hefty hunk of red onion, a tablespoon of powdered garlic, and some mayonnaise, and I made a tan mush that looked disgusting. I scraped it into a mixing bowl and folded in a couple tablespoons of pickle relish. It looked vile. But I was undaunted. Appearances can be deceiving. Much as cakes that are works of sugar art can taste like chocolate-scented cardboard, many things that look revolting often taste very good.

My husband came home and peered into the bowl and said, “Tuna salad sandwiches for dinner?”

“No, it’s… beef spread,” I said, a little dubiously, I confess. “I don’t know what you call it, really.”

“I bet it’s really good,” he remarked. My husband has never met a thing involving beef that didn’t brighten his day. My daughter, a more skeptical meat-eater, came into the kitchen and peered into the bowl with great hopefulness and then got a sad look on her face. This stuff does not look appetizing at all. Have I mentioned this before? Because it’s true. But I took a dab of it and offered it to her to taste. “Here,”I said. She opened her mouth and I stuck my finger in and she looked happy.

“Dinner won’t be ready for about twenty minutes,” I said. “Get out of the kitchen.” My family went and sat on the couch to watch stupid cat videos and I thought, “I’ll make them a little appetizer.” I made two small sandwiches with the beef glop and brought them to the couch. Then I turned and went back to working on dinner.

“How is it?” I called from the kitchen.

“It’s really good,” my husband said.

“Does our daughter like it?” I asked.

My husband said, “I don’t know, she’s too busy cramming the rest of it into her mouth.”

I ambled back out to the living room. “Is it good?” I asked my daughter.

“Can I have another one?” she asked.

Let’s call it Deviled Beef. You could call it Beef Salad, you could call it Beef Spread, you could call it That Stuff That Looks Like Something the Cat Gakked Up. Deviled Beef sounds the most appealing to me.

There are a lot of articles online that talk about this substance, which is simultaneously ubiquitous, it seems, in certain low-brow food circles, and entirely undiscussed in others. The Pioneer Woman, Ree Drummond, who has a vast following, wrote a piece about this delicious stuff almost exactly six years ago. But I’ve not seen the articles I expected to see. I expected to see swooning from someone at about how this old-timey sandwich spread deserves to be served on crackers or Melba toasts at your next cocktail party. I expected to see some hipster-y piece somewhere, maybe from Serious Eats, about how beef spread can be a solution to your picnic sandwich woes this summer. I expected some food blogger to have a thousand words on Peg Bracken’s beef spread and how it’s an unappreciated work of genius. If nothing else, I really thought the Peg Bracken angle would have led some Bracken fangirl to write about beef spread, or salad, or whatever you call it.

What I found was a fair number of very middle-America websites suggesting we grind up our beef with mayonnaise and pickle relish and things (hard-boiled eggs often came into play, as with Ree Drummond), and a lot of comments from people saying, either, “Oh my god, that looks like baby vomit” or “My grandmother used to make this and it was delicious.” I found a website that talked about Southern food and gave a recipe for Roast Beef Spread which looked pretty much like what I’d made, but there are no comments on it (not that kind of site, I guess). But Saveur hasn’t talked about it, though they’ve discussed pimiento cheese at great length. I don’t recall anything about beef spread in Cook’s Illustrated. And Tamar Adler and Sam Sifton haven’t written about it, to the best of my knowledge.

In other words, this substance has not yet made it into the elite (or elitist) food world yet, the way deviled eggs and pimiento cheese cycled back in a few years ago. (I still haven’t recovered from the time I went for drinks at a fancy bar that specializes in serving bourbon, and they charged me $7 for three deviled eggs. I don’t mean three whole eggs. I mean, three half-eggs. Seven bucks. For seven bucks, I could make about 48 deviled eggs.) It may be that deviled beef is just too disgusting-looking for it to have a cultural and culinary renewal, but that would be a mistake. This stuff is good. And it’s economical. Not that that is the point. The point is, it’s good. But if I ran a restaurant and had a lot of leftover beef around — not hamburger meat, but leftover steaks or something — I would totally make a killing selling this stuff to my customers.

I’ll tell you how good it is. After I denied my daughter a second deviled beef sandwich last night — because we were soon to sit down to eat huge bowls of Pasta Natalie — she asked me, “You’re gonna make me a sandwich of that for lunch at camp tomorrow, right?”

Deviled Beef Sandwich


The answer is Yes. And furthermore, I intend to spend some serious time fiddling with this stuff. Deviled Beef is going to be awesome with horseradish, with capers, with chimmichurri blended in….

The I Hate to Housekeep Book: A New Assessment

IMG_5429Two weeks ago I had occasion to talk with some people about my love of Peg Bracken, which is something I’ll do if poked even a tiny bit. The way some people talk about their favorite jazz albums to anyone who’ll listen (and even people who won’t listen), I will talk about Peg Bracken. I think she’s hugely underrated, ignored unfairly, and just generally given short shrift. She was one of the great comic writers of the 20th century. It’s true that comic writing of decades past is always ghettoized (even current comic writing is ghettoized), but one of my Things is trying to keep the greats in the hands of current readers. And if the books are actually useful in some way — which Peg Bracken’s definitely are — then all the more reason to crow about them at any given opportunity.

The Bracken title most people know is The I Hate to Cook Book, which is an undeniable classic. It got reprinted about ten years ago, and I huzzah’d with joy along with maybe a thousand other American women who’d grown up reading their mother’s copies of this book. The I Hate to Cook Book is, in its original edition, a work that no one I know is likely to cook from today — there’s far too great a reliance on canned goods and freeze-dried this-or-that. But the newer edition was updated to make it somewhat more approachable to someone in the kitchen today — it was not made trendy (there’s no mention of “clean” eating, thank god), but it was altered to match more closely what a pressed-for-time woman in the kitchen today would have at hand. The basic premise still stands, and, more importantly, Bracken’s voice still stands. Peg Bracken wrote a snarky mama blog decades before anyone could have imagined such a thing.
The cookbook she wrote was followed by a few other titles. One of them, I Try to Behave Myself, is an etiquette book. I re-read it two weeks ago and while it was amusing, much of it was rather beside the point in today’s world (not too surprisingly). On the other hand, I admit, a lot of it was quite relevant and I found myself nodding my head now and then as I read it. So that’s worth a look, perhaps especially for parents of young children. Bracken’s observations on children and their impacts on life are always valuable.
But the one that’s absolutely mandatory reading, no question, is The I Hate to Housekeep Book, a copy of which, if you ask me, should be handed to every person as soon as they sign a lease on their first apartment. All those listsicles you see online with handy hacks for this and that? Dude: probably half of them are in this book, which goes to show that the people writing these listsicles aren’t half as clever as you think they are. This book is super-useful and really funny and you don’t have to click through annoying ads when you’re reading it, because it’s a BOOK.
A lot of those lists online, hot tips from the good people at Martha Stewart or Real Simple, or Buzzfeed, or whatever, are good but also somewhat unrealistic. Expectations can be a little high. Well, you say, Okay, but it’s a starting point, right? It’s a baseline. Well, sure. For me, the baseline is Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson: when you really need the most precise, anal-retentive, Cook’s Illustrated-level instructions on how to take care of a housekeeping issue, that’s where you go. But for the run of the mill stuff, Peg Bracken beats the snot out of the entire editorial staff at any magazine online or in print today, because she is really funny. She’s so funny that my husband, who believe me, does not want to read housekeeping manuals, was laughing at passages from this book last week. (I took this book with me on vacation and read it in two sittings of approximately two hours each.) Hints from Heloise were good, but smug and rather humorless; what’s more, as Bracken writes in her foreword, the advice is often more trouble than it’s worth. “I have been doing all this myself for about twenty years, and I find it hard on the manicure. I’ve found, too, that none of the books about it does me much good. The household experts hand out cures are worse than the ailment. They expect you to do things that depress you to merely think about, let alone do. They think you’ll actually keep an orderly file of all the washing instructions that come with the family clothes, once you’ve been told to. The efficiently organized expert makes the mistake of assuming that you, too, want to be one.”

Take that, Heloise.

I invite readers to come with me and examine (or re-examine) the I Hate to Housekeep Book, chapter by chapter. If I’m really on my game, I’ll be able to reproduce here some of the Hilary Knight illustrations. But even if I’m not, you’re going to see that this book is worth acquiring. I acquired my copy online (via Abebooks) and if I can do it, so can you.

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