“You’ll get worms.”
My mother’s words ring in my ears every time I see another plate of one of Belgium’s most popular dishes leave the kitchen.
It’s the filet américain. No, it’s not steak. It’s a mass of raw ground beef. Depending on the establishment and the recipe, it can look not unlike the small, pink brick of the cellophane-wrapped stuff you get from an American supermarket. Many Belgians prefer a version that looks more like a hamburger. Either way, it comes studded with raw onions, little pickles and capers. Sometimes, just for added risk, they put a raw egg on top. It’s usually served with an array of condiments: salt, pepper, Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, and mayonnaise. You “mix and match” as you’d like.
It can also come “prepared,” which means it’s been whipped into a sticky paste with some of ingredients listed above already added to it. This not only sits well on a plate, but also makes the filet a moveable feast. Slap it on a baguette and you’ve got a sandwich known as the Martino. (It’s always fun to watch Americans order this, thinking it’s a Belgian version of an Italian sub).
Now, those who suffer from “pink slime” fears are already balking at this. I feel your intestinal pain.
But you can’t underestimate this dish’s popularity here in Belgium. And yes, I’m fully aware that raw meat is happily eaten in many places around the world, whether it’s steak tartare in France, or kitfo, its spicy Ethiopian cousin.
The filet, however, holds a special place in the Belgian stomach. Pearl-laden octogenarians daintily slide it onto forks in five star restaurants. Postmen slip into one of Brussels’ famed “brown cafes” for a quick filet (and a Leffe blonde, bien sûr) between deliveries. Youthful office workers glide out of sandwich shops toting their Martinos. Roofers and plumbers pull homemade américainbaguettes out of their packs during their regular smoke breaks.
As I type this in my favorite Brussels cafe, the guy next to me is having it as a mid-morning snack. On toast. And, in case you wondered, the answer is yes. Many restaurants offer the petit filet américain for kids (“You’ll get worms!”).
It cuts across Belgium’s linguistic and cultural divides like a knife through, well, raw ground beef. The Dutch-speaking Flemish love it. The French-speaking Walloons scarf it up. Officially bilingual Brussels is awash with plates of pink cow flesh. I haven’t studied the dish’s history in depth, but I’m sure if you go back far enough, you’ll find a fight about whether the Flemings or the Walloons “invented” it. Maybe it helps that the other beloved staple of pan-Belgian cuisine, frites, is the preferred side dish.
I’m exaggerating a bit, of course. I’m sure that not all Belgians like it. I’ve even heard about one old man in East Flanders who has actually gone on the record as “hating it.” I bet he secretly craves it, though. I’ll just bet.
This American has eyed the américain with mild trepidation, but not for the reasons you might think. Look, I can live with a culinary roll-of-the-dice. I’ve eaten haggis in Scotland. I’ve cringed through fresh liver and paprika stew only an hour after watching the pig get it in the neck in an Hungarian farmyard. I once had a very dubious-looking (but thoroughly delicious) lamb sandwich at a dusty Turkish bus stop. The locals actually cheered.
True, those examples were cooked, more or less.
But it’s not the raw aspect that has kept me from the filet américain. It’s not the fear of parasites. The taste and texture of a pasty wad of uncooked meat doesn’t trouble me either. It comes with Worcestershire sauce, after all. Add pearl onions and pickles for a bit of crunch, and a cold beer to wash it down. Delicious. I’ll just bet.
No, the fact is that I’m afraid I’ll like it. A lot. Probably too much.
And if you start down that américain road, there is no return. Try it once, and soon you’re asking for it regularly at lunch, along with half a liter of red wine. And then you’re having coffee after, along with a digestif. Your afternoon productivity, what’s left of it, starts to slump. Like a good Belgian, you simply shrug your shoulders.
A month later, you’re seeking out the places that serve the américain with the raw egg. On purpose.
“Why not?” becomes not just a motto for lunch, but for everything.
Six months go by, and you’re slipping out after you’ve finished a plate for a few quick drags on an unfiltered Lucky Strike. You try to go grow a handlebar mustache. You smile quietly to yourself while mocking the pretentious restaurant that serves a raw tuna version of the dish. “Poseurs,” you snort under your breath, thinking you’re now a local.
A year passes, and you realize you’re trying to make the illusion a reality. After a quick Martino, you’re happily standing in a four-hour line at the local town hall, petitioning desperately for Belgian citizenship. Why? Because you know that once you get back to the United States, it’s going to be hard to explain to your friends at the barbecue why you don’t want your hamburger grilled. At all. And when you ask for the raw egg, the hosts will politely ask you to leave.
But worst of all is this: at some point, you’ll have to explain to your mom, in person, why you’re suddenly (and blatantly) ignoring one of those solid pieces of homespun advice that’s ensured you’ve lived past 40. The horror.
No, I’ve seen the ending of this story, and this is it: one bite of américain, and I’ll eventually end up in a Belgian hospital, clutching my stomach with one hand and my phone in the other hand.
“Yep, Mom…I got worms,” I’ll say through clenched teeth.
And the worst part is that I know I won’t be wondering how long until I can get “Medevaced” out of here. Instead, I’ll be counting the minutes until lunch is served.