National Sandwich Month (August): A Sandwich SOS

Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega searches old newspapers to find recipes for a meal many families – and military personnel – remember well: creamed chipped beef on toast. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”

Some meals have a reputation. Case in point: Creamed Chipped Beef on Toast, sometimes referred to as “SOS.” Those who served in the military are familiar with this open-faced sandwich – as are those who may have “enjoyed” it growing up as a regular feature in their families’ monthly dinner menu rotation.

Even though many American families had this dish repeatedly throughout the month, mine was not one of them. My dad once told me that he enjoyed eating SOS during his time in the Air Force and actually found it to be one of the more edible meals in the service. He requested that my mom make it for dinner when he left the military but my mom came from a family that had never eaten SOS, so she made it once and then we never ate it again. Point being that not everyone is a fan of this quick, cheap meal.

So, what’s the history of this infamous sandwich?

History of SOS Sandwich

It’s easy to assume that the origin of this sandwich began with the military, but actually it’s been a popular recipe with the general population in the United State for some time. It makes sense that Creamed Chipped Beef on Toast was a popular item during difficult financial times like the Great Depression, since it requires few ingredients and can be stretched to feed a family for very little money. But you may be surprised to find out that the recipe can be found in historical newspapers 50 years before the Great Depression!

One of the first mentions I found for the recipe is this one from a reader’s letter in the 30 September 1876 issue of the Chicago Tribune that ends with:

“I have never seen a recipe for ‘Chipped Beef on Toast,’ or ‘Chipped Beef with Milk and Eggs,’ prepared like codfish. I think it a good breakfast dish. Dried-beef is ‘handy to have in the house’ when other things fail.”

An article about chipped beef on toast, Chicago Daily Tribune newspaper article 30 September 1876
Chicago Daily Tribune (Chicago, Illinois), 30 September 1876, page 10

This recipe is cheap and quick to prepare, which is an important consideration for women who worked or were just busy. As the introduction to this 1939 recipe points out, to make chipped beef requires “virtually no time after a busy day shopping, partying, or working in the office.” Working women would have especially needed this recipe during the World War II years.

A recipe for chipped beef on toast, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 8 May 1939
Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 8 May 1939, page 9

If you’re wondering what a Calavo-Tomato Salad is, “calavo” is a California avocado.

SOS

Many veterans like my dad have memories of eating SOS while in the military. The Naval Historical Foundations’ blog has a food series called “Chow” that explores the Navy’s culinary traditions. Their blog post titled “Creamed Sliced Beef on Toast (SOS)” explores the mysterious history of SOS, but finds that an early mention of the recipe can be found in the 1910 Manual for Army Cooks which uses “beef stock, evaporated milk, and parsley added to flour, butter, and dried beef.” Later military recipes during World War II call for an SOS that is creamier.*

Using the website Internet Archive, researchers can find other editions of the Technical Manual: The Army Cook, including this 1941 edition that includes a recipe for “Beef, dried chipped or sliced on toast” which seems to not have changed much since 1910. This recipe calls for 130 slices of bread; you create a mixture that includes 7 pounds of chipped or sliced beef.

Photo: chipped beef on toast recipe from “Technical Manual: The Army Cook,” p. 165
Photo: chipped beef on toast recipe from “Technical Manual: The Army Cook,” p. 165. Credit: Internet Archive.

Variations on a Theme

Chipped Beef on Toast can be made to accompany other foods and be served at any meal. One newspaper example I found is this 1920 recipe that calls for a “border of cooked spinach” for each serving.

A recipe for chipped beef on toast, Patriot newspaper article 19 March 1920
Patriot (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), 19 March 1920, page 14

It’s easy to understand that dried beef manufacturers wanted to convince consumers that there were many different ways to use their product, as a way to increase sales. Creative newspaper articles described a variety of uses geared toward saving money or, like this one, making summer meals. Of the three recipes provided, Creamed Eggs and Chipped Beef on Toast makes logical sense; however, the Creamed Dried Beef Shortcake, which is basically biscuits and gravy, has a name that conjures up a bad dessert idea.

Recipes for chipped beef on toast, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 18 May 1934
Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 18 May 1934, page 13

Dried Beef and Other Meats

SOS typically uses dried sliced beef, but when I asked my Facebook friends about their memories of SOS, they remarked they had also had it with ground beef or sausage – which makes sense since SOS is basically a version of biscuits and gravy.

Chipped Beef on Toast seems to be one of those foods that people have a love or hate relationship with, and it’s easy to understand why. For many, it was a much-too-frequent meal because of how little time the preparation took and its low cost. It was a popular item on restaurant menus also.

A restaurant ad for chipped beef on toast, Plain Dealer newspaper advertisement 23 January 1922
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 23 January 1922, page 16

Military Explanation

And finally, it must be addressed: why did military personnel refer to Chipped Beef on Toast as “SOS”? Well, according to Wikipedia:

“In American military slang it is commonly referred to by the dysphemism ‘Sh*t on a Shingle’ (SOS), or ‘Stew on a Shingle,’ ‘Same Old Stuff,’ ‘Something on a Shingle,’ or occasionally ‘Save Our Stomachs.’”

Have You Had Chipped Beef on Toast?

Was Creamed Chipped Beef on Toast a regular meal on your family’s dinner rotation? Or did you have so much of it in the military that you decided “never again”! Creamed Chipped Beef on Toast is a recipe that many people have in common. Does your family recipe differ? Do you have stories about this recipe? Please share those family stories and recipes as part of your food history.

Note: An online collection of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, is not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors – the old newspaper articles also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers – as well as recipes for the foods they ate.

* “Chow: Creamed Sliced Beef On Toast (S.O.S.),” Naval Historical Foundation (https://www.navyhistory.org/2016/04/chow-creamed-sliced-beef-on-toast-s-o-s/ : accessed 24 July 2019).

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