Raw ground beef and onions spread on top a piece of bread.

What Is A Cannibal Sandwich?

There’s a crazy tradition that takes place primarily in the state of Wisconsin. Mostly known for their top notch cheddar cheese which notably melts the hearts of the rest of the nation, there is another Midwestern food primarily eaten around the holidays that most people literally probably couldn’t stomach. It’s called a cannibal sandwich.

A cannibal sandwich is a sandwich consisting of raw ground beef mixed with salt, pepper, and chopped onions served between two slices of rye bread.

So no, you don’t fry up and eat the family member that had the worst comments during Thanksgiving for Christmas, though it sounds this way. I love me a steak or burger on the rare side, but… ewww.

Learning what a cannibal sandwich is brought up so many questions. Maybe the people who like these see themselves as cows? Here’s what I learned about this sandwich with a macabre moniker:

What is the Origin Of the Cannibal Sandwich?

A plate of hackepeter which consists of raw ground beef and bread sits on a plate ready to be served.

The cannibal sandwich is said to have traveled to America from Germany. A hackepeter is a common dish from Germany that is bread served with seasoned raw beef or pork.

During the 19th century, many Germans flocked to the heart of Wisconsin for the region’s prime farming land. With the robust count of cattle on these farms, it was only natural to keep the dream of consuming raw meat alive. Some believe that if it wasn’t for the perfect storm of all of the same nationality moving to a place with a constant supply of beef, the cannibal sandwich tradition might have gone the way of the dodo.

Thankfully (I guess?), here we are: eating raw ground beef is now a proud Midwest tradition. (I love me some beer and brats, I don’t know why they couldn’t just stick to that…)

Is there Tradition Tied to the Cannibal Sandwich?

A happy family of farmers dance together in a barn.

Yes and yes. Thanks to the availability of ground beef and the communities full of German folk from the old world, cannibal sandwiches thrived in this part of America and welcomed future generations to feel communion with their ancestors.

You can’t argue that food holds a special place in cultural identity. More so than politics, being from the same place, or even of the same religion. In this melting pot of a country that’s only been around since the late 1700’s, with more and more people still leaving their country of origin to live here, it’s only natural for older generations to tell the story of their arrival through food.

Thus the legendary hackepeter made its way West, and the traditional dish has been kept alive through the generations.

When Is A Cannibal Sandwich Mostly Consumed?

An outside shot of an outside wedding reception set up and ready for guests.

Now don’t worry, it’s not like Cheeseheads are making this dish every week like your staple spaghetti dinner. Cannibal sandwiches are mostly consumed nowadays during family celebrations, particularly weddings and holidays. So there’s kind of a special notion tied to it.

The modern purpose of a cannibal sandwich is to share how things were back in the day. Choosing to eat raw meat is a pretty weird unique way to reflect on the past. Maybe ride around in a horse carriage for a day or churn your own butter? I digress…

That being said, I guess you can’t argue with the weight food holds when it comes to tradition. This might be like taking a Turkey away from a family on Thanksgiving. We all have that one relative that will lose it if you take away their dosage of tryptophan.

Is a Cannibal Sandwich Safe?

A slab of ground beef sits on top of a cutting board.

According to the USDA, cannibal sandwiches are not safe to eat. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services claims every holiday season, primarily around Christmas, people are hospitalized for eating these raw beef dishes.

Although the USDA recommends you cook a cannibal sandwich before serving it, many feel that is not traditional and ignore the voice of reason as if it’s coming from a bunch of tyrants pulling them from their roots. But let’s be honest, science states that the bacteria in raw ground beef that can get you sick cannot be killed unless the internal temperature of the meat reaches at least 160°F.

What About Other Raw Dishes Like Sushi, Ceviche, Or Steak Tartare?

Raw fish sits out on a plate.

It’s no secret that Germany isn’t the only country that has a historic uncooked entrée that is still consumed today. Several cultures have raw dishes ingrained in their history that are still enjoyed by many living today. Some of these eats have also become favorites of people that aren’t native to the culture where the dish originated. Almost makes you rethink your initial reaction to the cannibal sandwich… (keyword: almost).

What makes more popular raw dishes different? Though down the line the USDA warns against consuming any raw meat regardless of preparation, here are a few that seem more socially accepted in our culture and a bit of the science behind their preparation:


Raw sushi choices on a cutting board.

Sushi is a plate synonymous with Japanese culture. Turns out with sushi, fish have less harmful bacteria to people than land animals do. And when it comes to ground beef, lots of the harmful bacteria comes from the processing of the meat.

Sushi fish isn’t ground, so therefore the bacteria on the outside can be killed by freezing. Kind of the same reason a rare steak is safe: the bacteria live on the outside surface that touches the air, which means that as long as you kill (cook) that outer bacteria you can pretty much safely eat a steak with a pink middle. (I say “pretty much” because foodborne illnesses are always a risk when consuming raw or undercooked meats.)


A traditional serving of ceviche sits on a plate.

Ceviche, a dish of raw fish or shellfish “cooked” in the juice of citrus fruits like limes or lemons, comes from several South American cultures and is prepared several different ways depending on the region. The science behind ceviche is that the acids from lemon or lime juice kill the bacteria. This is called denaturation.

As with sushi, fish just don’t have the same bacteria land animals possess. Scientists believe this may be because their underwater ecosystem is so different from ours that some bacteria (not all) aren’t transferred the same.

Still there is a risk here. Though this style of raw preparation might hold more merit than eating straight up uncooked beef, it should always be enjoyed with caution. The USDA recommends against consuming ceviche, too.

Steak Tartare

A traditionally made piece of steak tartare.

Our world view of this raw beef delicacy might be a little classist due to the fancy name and French origin… Steak tartare is literally a cannibal sandwich with a raw egg included. In fact, sometimes the two names are interchangeable for the same dish.

The common analysis by advocates for this dish is that tartare should only be consumed from the finest meats and prepared with the most ambitious sanitation methods. Not surprisingly, the USDA advocates against consuming steak tartare – and they recommend you don’t eat raw eggs, either.

Maybe Some History Should Be Left Behind

Old history books sit next to each other on a shelf.

I will admit, I do love me some sushi. Never had a problem with it, even considering the warning signs posted in the restaurants I frequent. But, at least to me, something about raw ground beef sounds a bit much. (Not to mention we went over the fact that there is more science supporting the consumption of sushi over raw beef even though both have their risks.)

If you want to be the guy who tightrope walked across the Grand Canyon, who am I to stop you? I don’t know if eating a cannibal sandwich will give you as much satisfaction or glory, but many of families in the Midwest sure seem to think so.

I’ll stick to steak on the more rare side if I have a primal craving and, according to the USDA, you should, too.



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