The mock filet mignon was a recipe likely developed during World War II when food rations were commonplace. My mother lived through that war; maybe that's why this dish was one of her favorites.
You always knew where you stood with my mom because she’d tell you.
Mom spoke plainly, but honestly. She’d let you know if you’d disappointed her, but more importantly, she more often told you how much she loved you.
Catherine Elizabeth Brolaski Reinhardt adopted those principles in her cooking, too. Mom’s food wasn’t fancy, but it was honest and satisfying. And she had a gift of hospitality.
I always will remember a family friend, the Rev. Rick Oberle, sharing a story about that gift at her eulogy in 2006. Rick compared Mom to Jesus’ friend, Martha, who ministered through hospitality and food. Mom certainly did that, whether she was working alongside her friends in the kitchen at Trinity United Church of Christ for a fish fry or sauerkraut dinner, or feeding Rick supper once a week. In fact, he shared that it was during those suppers at my folks’ house when he decided to enter the seminary. Now that’s soul food.
Mom was born in 1928, one of Louis and Margaret Brolaski’s five children. Theirs was not an easy home to live in based on the stories I heard over the years, but my mother often talked about the generosity of my maternal grandmother. Maybe that’s where Mom got it from, or perhaps she knew what it felt like to go to bed without dinner, so she couldn’t bear the idea of someone going hungry.
Her parents were 100 percent “old world Europe.” Theirs was an arranged marriage. My grandfather, a widower, emigrated from Hungary to the United States. When he could afford it, he sent for his much younger betrothed—a girl, really—to join him. By the time she was 30, Margaret had seven children (five survived).
This central European heritage was reflected in my mom’s recipe box: Hungarian goulash, chicken paprikash, and beef gaestle (gashtel) soup with shredded Hungarian noodles (reszelt teszta) were dishes we often enjoyed. Her holiday cheeseball is so good, it’s been known to make people weep in gratitude. Although she was an excellent savory cook, she and her mother-in-law Dorothy baked Christmas cookies every year, beginning just after Thanksgiving and continuing into mid-December. Our basement at this time looked like a small bakery.
And because Mom grew up during The Depression, she knew how to stretch a food budget and how to combine common ingredients into interesting meals. We didn’t waste food; leftovers were part of the weekly meal plan. And somehow, we always had more than enough to eat and to share.
So back to Mom’s volunteer kitchen work at Trinity UCC. Trinity was on South Grand Boulevard in St. Louis, Missouri not far from Carondelet Park. Over the years, the church hosted hundreds of fund-raising dinners, from sauerkraut suppers and turkey dinners, to the fish fry Fridays and spaghetti nights. When Rick was called to his first congregation, Mom passed along the cole slaw recipe that was always on the fish fry menu at Trinity. I suspect it’s based on the recipe she left me.
And in the 1970s, Trinity published its cookbook to raise money for the church. Ladies of the congregation were asked to submit a couple of their favorite recipes, and one of Mom’s was mock filet mignon.
The mock filet, or “fake steak,” likely comes from the 1940s when food rations were again part of household life. In fact, Canadian cookbook author Kate Aitken, who included a mock filet recipe in her Canadian Cook Book (sic) from 1945, noted the recipe predates World War II.
And while some ingredients will vary between recipes, the common denominators are ground beef, bacon, and a starch to stretch the meat further. My mom’s recipe included mushrooms and shredded potatoes. It yields four really large “filets,” so you easily could make the patties slightly smaller if you have five or six people to feed.
Mock Filet Mignon
4 ounces chopped mushrooms
1 medium onion, chopped
1 tablespoon butter
2 pounds ground beef
½ baking potato, shredded, and squeeze out excess moisture
¼ cup ketchup
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon salt (sorry Mom, I added 2 teaspoons)
1 teaspoon pepper
4 to 8 slices bacon
Sauté mushrooms and half of onion in butter. In a large bowl, mix the rest of onion and remaining ingredients. Shape into 8 large or 10 smaller patties. Top half of the patties with the onion and mushroom mixture. Cover with plain patties, pressing edges together to seal. Shape into the form of a filet (about 1½ inches thick) and wrap edges with bacon, fastening with toothpicks. Place on a broiler pan and broil six to 7 inches from heat for 10 to 13 minutes on each side (if you’re making smaller patties, the cook time will likely be around 10 minutes).
[Full disclosure: When I made this recipe, my oven smoked very hard and I had to open every window to avoid the smoke alarm going off! Maybe it’s my older oven or “pilot error,” but next time, I may grill these outside using a griddle pan.]