Imagine this: You’ve traveled home for Christmas, and there’s no pandemic (stay with us, here). Your family is gathering for a big afternoon lunch. Someone hands you a plate with a sandwich consisting of a rye bread slice, raw ground beef, onions, salt, and pepper.

If you’re from Milwaukee, this might already sound like a familiar treat. Raw beef sandwiches, also known as “cannibal” or “tiger meat” sandwiches, are a holiday tradition. They’re apparently still popular, even in the wait-maybe-don’t-eat-raw-meat days of 2020. While this particular meal might not sound appetizing, there are plenty of people who stand by these cannibal sammies. But, tradition be damned, should anyone really be eating these things?

How did cannibal sandwiches become popular?

The history of the cannibal sandwich is a little hazy. Some believe the sandwich’s origins link back to the Mongols, while others think it originated in Germany or France (in any case, it’s safe to say that it came from a hardcore culture). The Wisconsin version was apparently a German holiday tradition that took root in the Milwaukee area. The sandwich is even mentioned on the Wisconsin Historical Society’s website, though the page is lacking any true historical information or context. 

The cannibal sandwich isn’t relegated only to the Milwaukee area. Gradually, the raw-meat sandwich made its way through the Midwest, adopting a different regional name at every stop. It’s also not the only meal of its kind.

Other “cannibal sandwiches” vary their ingredients, but they’re all…gross.

You can find some variation of a raw-meat treat in just about any culture. The dish most closely related to the cannibal sandwich is the mettigel, a German dish consisting of minced pork decorated with onions and shaped into a hedgehog. Cute, right? 

 

The Lebanese have kibbeh nayeh, a dish made up of ground lamb or beef, bulgar, onions, and spices, served during holidays and eaten with flatbread. In Brazil, you can find carne de onça, also known as jaguar meat. No jaguars are harmed in the making of carne de onça. The dish gained popularity in 1953 and contains raw ground beef, garlic, onions, chives, olive oil,cognac, chili powder, and sweet paprika powder. It gets its name because after you eat this dish, you’ll have the breath of a jaguar (apparently, jaguars have awful breath).

Why is steak tartare or carpaccio safe to eat?

Tired of thinking about raw meat meals yet? You’ve probably heard of steak tartare or carpaccio, and these are both raw-meat dishes. While you will most likely come across either of these on the menu of more high-end restaurants, they’re still raw beef sittin’ on a plate. Why are they considered safe and appetizing, while other raw-meat dishes become subjects for Twitter outrage?

There’s probably some classism connected with this, but those hoighty-toighty dishes do have certain qualities that allow them into the “safer to eat” realm. The main point comes down to the cuts of meat used for each dish. Steak tartare and carpaccio both use high-end cuts — they’re never ground up.

E.coli contamination can occur in a butcher shop, causing bacteria to settle and grow on the outer surface of meat. Rarely does this bacteria travel inwards, which is why it’s typically safe to eat a rare steak (cooking the outside kills any surface bacteria). Essentially, if you’re buying steak from a good butcher who knows their stuff — or ordering steak tartare from a fancy restaurant where hygiene levels are high — you’re less likely to get a contaminated meal.

However, the cannibal sandwich is a totally different situation. Raw ground beef carries serious risks. Any surface bacteria instantly becomes internal bacteria when the beef is ground. The chances of a foodborne illness are high.

That doesn’t stop people from indulging, of course. Recently the Wisconsin Department of Health Services issued a statement warning people to avoid cannibal sandwiches — and people lost their collective minds on Twitter.

 

With that said, cannibal sandwich supporters even suggest using steak as the main cut of meat when partaking in this meal. If you’re dead-set on a cannibal sandwich, you should always choose the leanest cut, purchased as fresh as possible, ground on a clean grinder, and eaten immediately after purchase. We are by no means supporting the cannibal sandwich — it’s a dangerous dish and you shouldn’t eat it, especially during a global pandemic — but if you’re tempted to try one, make sure you’re eating with the least amount of risk as possible.