Origin of the Cannibal Sandwich in Wisconsin

The Mystery and Horror of the Cannibal Sandwich

You show up at the family gathering. A friendsgiving. Someone’s wedding. Your employer’s holiday party.

And there it is.

Amidst the spread of cheeses, crackers, summer sausage, assorted veggies, pickled herring.

A grotesque interloper.

A pink, squiggly mass.

No, you’re not in a horror movie.

It’s just Christmas in Wisconsin, and the abomination in question is the notorious “cannibal sandwich.”

Or “steak tartare” for those who want to church it up.


Every year around the holidays, Wisconsin seems to once again come under the judgmental eye of  media sources around the country, if not the world, because of our unbridled enthusiasm for consuming uncooked bovine flesh on small, cocktail-sized slices of rye bread with salt and pepper and raw onions.

“For many Wisconsin families, raw meat sandwiches are a holiday tradition, but eating raw meat is NEVER recommended because of the bacteria it can contain,” The Wisconsin Department of Health Services reminded us a few years back. “Ground beef should always be cooked to 160 degrees!”

Just like your family gathering, raw beef can harbor some troublesome guests. Listeria, salmonella, and your crazy uncle E. coli are some of the serious party-crashers that could land you an extensive stay on the toilet, the ER, or even an early grave.

Still, we eat it anyway.

Just like we have for centuries.

Because we’re Wisconsinites.

And just maybe because they keep telling us not to.

I mean, it’s a downright miracle we’re not all running around with mad cow disease at this point.

Origin of the Cannibal Sandwich

So what’s the deal with raw beef sandwiches anyway, besides the fact that we’re defiant, stubborn, self-destructive maniacs with varying degrees of cannibalistic tendencies running through our veins?

All we really know is it’s a tradition our northern European ancestors brought with them from the dark, pagan lands of the Old Country.

“You may not speak the language, you may not wear the clothes, you may not have the politics, but that food, that memory, that tradition is a tie to where you came from,” Old World Wisconsin spokesperson Anna Altschwager told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Wisconsin is known as one of the most German states in the country, and Milwaukee has been called the “German Athens of America,” in reference to how Athens, Greece was the cultural center of the ancient world.

Wisconsin also had more agriculture than other states with German roots, so while the tradition may have faded in most places, our progenitors had lots of raw cows to gnaw on.

“If you like food, you have to try it,” Jeff Zupan of Bunzel’s Meat Market in Milwaukee told WPR.

Other Unique Holiday Food Traditions

Funeral potatoes

When I was young, I always looked forward to the holidays because someone in the family would inevitably bring a cheesy potato casserole. This dish, I learned later in life, is usually referred to as “funeral potatoes” because it’s the perfect comfort food for feeding a hungry crowd in mourning.

Of course, our drunken forebears also brought over a hearty love for drink. Today, Brandy Old Fashioneds are not only popular at Wisconsin supper clubs, they’re also great for around the Christmas tree.

You’ll usually find the ingredients for those on the card table right next to the alcoholic slushies.

“My aunt and uncle used to show up for family gatherings with a gallon ice cream bucket filled with brandy slush,” Jeff of Badgerland Legends shared here. “Looking back, that seems pretty Wisconsin….”

What weird holiday food traditions does your family have? Let us know in the comments below!

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