Wisconsin's Cannibal Sandwiches Are A Long-Standing Tradition

While eating raw meat isn't completely unheard of — tere siga (which translates to "raw meat") is an Ethiopian delicacy and just about everyone has heard of steak tartare — it isn't exactly a common practice. However, things are a little different in Wisconsin — the state may be defined by its cheeses, but there's actually a raw meat sandwich called the cannibal sandwich that is just as much a quintessential part of Wisconsin's food history.

The cannibal sandwich consists of raw ground beef, sliced raw onions, and spices served over a slice of bread or with crackers. The origins of the sandwich seem to date back to the 1800s, when Wisconsin saw an influx of German immigrants. In Germany, there's a similar raw pork sandwich called the "mett," also known as "hackepeter" in some parts of the country. As immigrant communities formed, the "mett" transformed into the cannibal sandwich, using beef instead of pork, and soon became a staple in Wisconsin. It eventually became a tradition to serve the cannibal sandwich for special occasions, such as weddings and holidays.

In fact, Jeff Zupan, the operations manager of Milwaukee's Bunzel's Meat Market, told Wisconsin Public Radio in 2019 that the market goes through over 1,000 pounds of raw beef for cannibal sandwiches alone, proving that Wisconsinites continue to love the raw meat dish.

There are concerns about the risk of eating the cannibal sandwich

However, there are plenty of concerns out there about the cannibal sandwich. In December 2020, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services even took to social media to warn people of the risks of the staple sandwich, writing on X (formerly Twitter), "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. Ground beef should always be cooked to 160 degrees!" Further, on its website, it states that there have been eight separate cases of salmonella outbreaks, linked to the cannibal sandwich, since 1986.

However, the warnings have not stopped the lovers of the cannibal sandwich from indulging in the risky meal — even doctors. Dr. Zorba Paster — a physician and host of a radio show about healthy lifestyles — spoke to Wisconsin Public Radio, giving advice on the safest ways to consume the product (instead of advising against eating it). Paster advised consumers to seek fresh quality meat, such as steak, and ask for it to be freshly ground by the butcher, noting that there's a bigger risk of E.coli if you eat pre-packed ground beef.

Many Wisconsinites cite cultural traditions as to why they continue eating the sandwich. Anna Altschwager, who works for a history museum called Old World Wisconsin, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "We want to maintain the tradition and we want to give our kids the holidays that we remember."