The History and Origins of Chipped Beef on Toast

Chipped beef on toast, also known as “SOS” (creamed chipped beef), is a classic American dish that is deeply rooted in U.S. military history. From its origins in frontier camping to becoming an iconic military staple, here is a look at the history and background of chipped beef on toast.

What is Chipped Beef?

Chipped beef starts as salted and dried beef that is sliced into thin shreds or “chips.” It has a concentrated beef flavor and a chewy texture. Before refrigeration, salting and drying meat was a common preservation technique that allowed it to be stored for long periods. Chipped beef retains the salty flavor of this old-fashioned process. The thin shavings rehydrate quickly when simmered in liquid.

Early Frontier Origins

Dried, salted beef was a staple for American pioneers and campers in the 1800s. It provided lightweight protein that kept without refrigeration. As dried beef became widely available from suppliers, creative camp cooks developed various dishes to make the salty meat more palatable.

One simple frontier technique was to simmer chipped beef in water to mellow the saltiness, then thicken the liquid into a basic gravy. The gravy helped soften and rehydrate the dried beef into an edible meal that could be easily prepared over a campfire. Pieces of bread or hardtack soaked in this mixture became the earliest version of chipped beef on toast.

Rise in Popularity in the Military

As dried beef transitioned from the frontier to commercial production, it became a convenient protein ration for military units in the field. During World War I, chipped beef on toast appeared in U.S. Army cookbooks as an economical way to quickly feed large groups of soldiers.

The dish really took off during World War II when it became a standard meal served at bases and on ships. Soldiers referred to it by the slang name “SOS” or “Shit on a Shingle” because of its unappealing look of chipped meat strewn over toast. But its portability and ease of preparation made it a military staple throughout the 20th century.

Basic Military Recipe

The recipe for chipped beef on toast or SOS evolved over the years but retained the same basic format:

  • Chipped dried beef is simmered in milk, water or broth to soften
  • Flour is whisked in to thicken the liquid into a gravy
  • The sauce is spooned over toast

Convenient canned chipped beef and evaporated milk allowed military cooks to whip up large batches to feed hungry recruits. As the dish became ingrained in military culture, it was also served in messes and cafeterias on bases and at academies.

Boy Scouts Adopt the Dish

Beyond the military, chipped beef on toast also became strongly identified with Boy Scouts during the first half of the 1900s. Early Boy Scout manuals included recipes for “creamed chipped beef” to be prepared during camping trips. Generations of scouts learned outdoor cooking skills by making chipped beef gravy over the fire to ladle over toast or biscuits.

The dish was a perfect fit for the rustic scout ethos. As scouting emphasized military-style structure, chipped beef on toast represented a hearty, patriotic meal that conjured ideals of grit and self-reliance.

Diner Classic

After World War II, chipped beef on toast transitioned from strictly a military and scouting mainstay into a common diner food. As veterans returned home, they developed a nostalgic taste for the humble SOS they knew from their service days.

Diners added chipped beef on toast to their breakfast menus as a familiar and comforting meal. It joined ham, bacon, sausage and other classic morning meats that could be paired with eggs and toast. The diner version often subs in white country gravy for the military brown gravy for more flavor.

Decline and Nostalgic Revival

By the 1970s, chipped beef on toast began to decline along with diners falling out of favor. Fast food chains like McDonald’s captured the breakfast crowd, without chipped beef on their menus. The dish came to be seen as old-fashioned and unappetizing by younger generations.

But more recently, chipped beef on toast has seen a bit of a nostalgic revival. After years off most breakfast menus, a few restaurant chains have brought it back as a retro item that appeals to older diners. Modern versions also sometimes sub in sausage or ground beef for lighter chipped beef.

Despite ups and downs, chipped beef on toast remains a dish indelibly linked to its military beginnings. Over a century after weary soldiers cooked it over campfires, this history remains embedded in its familiar nickname of “SOS.” Every spoonful summons visions of mess halls, foxholes, and scout campouts, for generations that got their first taste of chipped beef on toast from a mess kit or canteen cup.

Creamed Chipped Beef & Toast | Southern Living


Is chipped beef American?

Originally made popular in the early 20th century by the U.S. military for its ability to quite literally feed an army, creamed chipped beef on toast eventually began making an appearance at breakfast time on many Southern family tables.

Is cream chipped beef a philly thing?

Philly Food Creamed chipped beef made with Knauss dried beef has been a Philadelphia favorite since 1902.

Does the military still eat SOS?

He said that veteran’s groups who tour the base are taken to a mess hall and served creamed beef on toast made using the recipe in the 1944 Army recipe book, TM 10-412. Again, many veterans tell Hanson it their favorite meal while in the Army. And SOS remains popular among soldiers today.

What is the original SOS made of?

Made from chipped beef and a simple seasoned roux served over toast, it continues to be a favorite dish for sailors and an easy meal for Navy Culinary Specialists to make. Like other preserved foods, the key ingredient of SOS, chipped (or dried) beef, stored easily and kept well on Navy vessels.

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