The poor but honest cousin of a nouveau rich dish.
On that basic theme, we’ve seen endless variations. Some use less temperamental coatings, like a brioche dough or a pie crust dough; some use seared slices of foie gras instead of the pâté; many line the pastry with something to keep it crisp despite having moist ingredients inside (Julia Child used prosciutto). The result is typically served with a Madeira sauce.
I’ve never been able to decide if the dish is actually good or if it’s just a calculated way to torture someone cooking for a dinner party. In its ideal formation, the tenderloin should be rare, the pastry should be crisp and light, and the strata between beef and pastry should be warm, rich, and earthy, set off by the acidity of the wine in the sauce. Delicious, yes, but other than to prove that you can do it, I can’t really come up with a culinary justification for why these things must be wrapped together.
If you think about it, the flavor profile of a beef Wellington is tender beef surrounded by rich animal fat and mushrooms, held in a crisp exterior, with an acid counterpoint on the plate. That description also fits a bacon and mushroom cheeseburger on a toasted bun with mustard. And there’s a fair bet that the cheeseburger is about a decade older than the Wellington we’ve described above.
No, really. Everybody has a theory on how this dish ended up sharing a name with the Duke of Wellington, the guy who beat Napoleon at Waterloo. Some say he liked his steak rare (maybe, but why not call it beef anybody-with-taste if that’s the case), some say it looked like the boots that were named after him (I… guess… if your boots don’t have room for your feet…), some say his chef made something like it (extraordinarily unlikely, given that we didn’t make anything like it for another hundred years afterward).
Well, let’s look at some Wellingtons. Older references of this dish would hypothetically be titled something like beef à la Wellington. But if you look at recipes with the Wellington name before the 1930s, they don’t look anything like this.
Consider this 1867 Wellington recipe from London, published in The Cook’s Guide, and Housekeeper’s & Butler’s Assistant by Charles Elmé Francatelli:
No. 619–Legs of Fowls à la Wellington
In this case also the legs of fowls whose fillets have already been used will serve the purpose: the legs, wings, and back-bones should be separated and neatly trimmed, placed in a deep saucepan with two tablespoons of salad oil, a sprig of thyme, one bay leaf, a clove of garlic, a little pepper and salt. Fry the members of fowls over a sharp fire until they are done of a light-brown color, and then, after removing the bay leaf and thyme, shake in two tablespoonfuls of flour, and one of Crosse and Blackwell’s Indian Chutnee; stir all together, moisten with half a pint of good gravy, simmer the whole over the fire for ten minutes, and serve.
1899 menu from a transatlantic ship has a filet de boeuf à la Wellington of some kind that’s being served with a lobster sauce. That sort of thing.
Then we move onto a wellington that’s a fish stuffed like a chicken and baked–this from 1919’s The International Jewish Cookbook by Florence Kreisler Greenbaum:
Baked Bass à la Wellington
Remove the scales and clean. Do not remove the head, tail, or fins. Put into a double boiler one tablespoon of butter, two cups of stale bread crumbs, one tablespoon of chopped onion, one teaspoon of chopped parsley, two teaspoons of chopped capers, one-fourth cup of sherry. heat all the above ingredients, season with paprika and salt, and stuff the bass with the mixture. Sew up the fish, put into a hot oven, bake and baste with sherry wine and butter.
A fish weighing four or five pounds is required for the above recipe.
Note that 1919 is also the year of the first series of Downton Abbey, which I bring up because The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook includes a beef Wellington recipe with the claim that it would be “the staple for many a dinner at Downton Abbey.”
It takes a real bit of work to manage to make a statement about a fictional series that is categorically untrue. Nevertheless, the only way Downton Abbey has had any beef Wellington in the years 1919 to 1923 (the most recent Christmas special) is if someone brought them from the future.
One early mention of a dish that might describe what we know as beef Wellington (but we can’t be sure) comes in a profile of a chef that worked for the Pacific Coast railroad, Paul Reiss, that appeared in the May 9, 1936 edition of the Centralia (Washington) Daily Chronicle:
All artists enjoy talking about their work, and Paul Reiss is no exception to this rule. His study of dietetics has been thorough, and he knows instantly the relative food values of various recipes. Food is his life, and he likes to discuss it.
The late Russian Czar praised his “stuffed filet of Salmon roman off.” Lord Kitchener sent for him after tasting his “Filet of Beef a la Wellington,” and expressed his appreciation of Reiss’ skill.
He is one of the few chefs who has not published a book of his favorite recipes. Recipe books are a tremendous temptation to chefs, but Reiss has disregarded this field of profit. A man who has sailed the seven seas to obtain the finest recipes from every country and city in the world likes to keep hard-won information to himself. Many of his friends have urged him to put these famous recipes down in writing, but Reiss believes that “The best recipes must be kept in the head, not in a book. The tradition of the profession demands it.”
The mention of Lord Kitchener is interesting. Usually, that refers to Field Marshall Horatio Herbert Kitchener, who died in 1916 after his boat struck a German mine. Paul Reiss was German, and to have had the opportunity to serve Lord Kitchener anything, they would’ve had to have encountered each other some thirty years before the piece was written. That said, on his 1917 immigration forms, Reiss listed his occupation as chef, so it’s entirely possible he was a trained chef before he stepped off the boat. But where Reiss cribbed the recipe from is anybody’s guess; this could be the 1899 lobster sauce or it could be something more modern.
It’s an interesting wrinkle that the actual Field Marshall Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington raised a bit of beef. Consider this report from the April 15, 1843 edition of the London Weekly Chronicle:
Prize Ox of the Duke of Wellington’s.—Rochester, April 8.–In consequence of it having become publicly known that Mr. W. Waghorn, a butcher, of High-street, in this city, had slaughtered during the week an ox that was fed at the Duke of Wellington’s, at Strathfieldsaye, and was to be exhibited at his shop this day (Saturday), such a novelty as Wellington beef in these towns brought together many of the resident gentry, including the officers of the garrison, who became purchasers of the different joints. The quality of the meat is reckoned to be the finest seen in these towns for many years; the prime parts were sold at 8 [shillings?] per pound. The beast was purchased by the butcher on Monday last at Smithfield market, for the sum of £31 10s, and when killed weighed 158 stone 4 pounds, the fat in the inside 22 stone 4 pounds, and was 5 years old. This ox had been exhibited twice, and had gained the duke a prize on each occasion.
(Yep, oxen are cattle. An ox is a fully-grown castrated male bull. So the next time you see someone hesitate to enjoy braised ox tail, feel free to roll your eyes Liz Lemon style.)
Wikipedia editors continue their unbroken streak of imaginary gibberish by offering the wisdom no Beef Wellington recipes appeared under that name until 1966 (how would someone even know that?). There are a decent few examples from newspapers demonstrating that’s wrong, but here’s one particularly suited to our recipe above, from the October 2, 1958 edition of the Appleton (Wisconsin) Post-Crescent:
Let’s just… try to focus on the fact that the person who submitted the recipe says tasted this on the S.S. America. The S.S. America was an ocean liner operated by the United States Lines company.
While I don’t have a menu from the America, the New York Public Library obligingly has a menu from the S.S. Wilson that’s from roughly the same period (1955), with a description of the dish on its menu:
Go figure, the actual dish from the newspaper doesn’t include any truffles or larding:
About a 5 poound tenderloin of beef.
Trim all fat from the tenderloin, heat a little bacon fat in a heavy skillet, and sear the meat on all sides over high temperature until nicely browned. Remove from heat.
Mix ground beef with onion, salt and pepper and egg whites and mix thoroughly into a smooth paste. Spread the mixture out evenly on a sheet of waxed paper, lay the tenderloin in the center, and roll the ground meat evenly and completely around the tenderloin so the latter is entirely covered by a layer of ground meat.
Wrap this in waxed paper and refrigerate at least one hour. Roll out the Puff Paste about 1/4 inch thick, place the meat carefully in the center, and wrap it with the pastry like a sausage. Seal the pastry tightly and brush with the egg yolk beaten with one tablespoon of water.
Bake 45 minutes in preheated oven at 375 degrees, until well-browned and crusty. Cool and serve cold, in slices. Nice arranged on a bed of diced aspic surrounded by cold asparagus tips vinaigrette, or cauliflower or broccoli with mayonnaise or hollandaise.
Meatloaf wasn’t far behind. Compare this early iteration from the February 27, 1969 edition of The Valley News of Van Nuys, California:
In large bowl, combine 3 eggs, 1 can cream of mushroom soup, 1 cup dry seasoned bread crumbs, 2 tablespoons instant minced onion, 2 teaspoons salt, 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Add 3 pounds lean ground beef; blend well.
Press mixture into 9x5x3 inch loaf pan, keeping surface flat. Bake at 350 degrees for 1-1/2 to 1-3/4 hours. Cool in pan for 5 minutes; drain excess grease. Invert meatloaf onto cookie sheet.
Separate 1 can crescent roll dough into 4 rectangles. Overlap slightly on pastry cloth to form one large rectangle, then roll out with rolling pin to form 15×10 inch rectangle.
Place over meatloaf and mold to shape of loaf. Trim excess dough off and use to make design for top. Brush top and sides with slightly beaten egg white. Return to oven and bake 15 to 20 minutes until golden.
From the box of L.R. from Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Meat Loaf Wellington
2-1/2 to 3 lbs. of ground beef (3 frozen packages from freezer locker)
1 medium onion, preferably grated
1 garlic button, preferably grated
1/2 cup of tomato ketchup
1/2-3/4 cup of Club House Cracker crumbs
2 or 3 eggs whipped in
1/4 cup of chopped fresh parsley
1/2 tsp. dried leaf basil or same amount of oregano
1-1/2 to 2 tsp. salt and 1/2 tsp. pepper
If desired, prepare (plain flour) pastry, 18″ x 13″ and 1/4″ thick, and wrap top side down and return to oven and bake.
Meatloaf should be placed on rack and cooled. Pastry should be pricked–brush with mixture of beaten egg and 1 tsp. of water. Decorate with cut-out from trimmed pastry.