Lies, Damn Lies, and Pork Steaks

It's All Out War, and the Bots Are Winning

By Robert F. Moss

A St. Louis-style grilled pork steak
A St. Louis-style grilled pork steak (Dave Herholz via Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Back in June, I published a long piece here on that tried to set the record straight on the history of pork steak and, in the process, railed against the sloppy inaccuracy of the culinary history found in Wikipedia entries. The whole piece was triggered by the "Pork Steak" Wikipedia entry's bizarre and unfounded assertion that pork steaks were invented by one Winfred Steinbruegge of Florissant, Missouri, in 1956.

The short answer is that pork steaks were around long before 1956. Grilling them and slathering them with barbecue sauce did become popular in St. Louis in the early 1950s but Winfred Steinbruegge had nothing to do with it. (For the long answer, see my original post on the history of pork steaks.)

I checked back in the other day to see whether the history had evolved any further, and lo and behold . . . the offending assertion has been removed! The crowd-sourced encyclopedia now makes no suggestion that anyone "invented" pork steaks, noting instead that "Pork steaks are mentioned in sources as far back as 1815, though without details about how they were cut or how they were cooked."

The entry's History tab reveals that on August 20th an editor with the username Macrakis expunged the whole Steinbruegge story and replaced it with the "as far back as 1815" line, commenting, "the details of the (dubious) story are not useful since pork steaks are much older than that."

That much is true, but where Macrakis got the 1815 date from is beyond me. In a footnote he cites Arthur Murphy's The Citizen, which was published in 1760, and if you simply plug "Pork Steak" into the Google Books search box you immediately turn up several examples that are even older than that.

So, while Wikipedia is still wrong about the history of pork steaks, it is much less wrong than it was a month ago, so I guess that's a step forward. Macrakis didn't see fit to link to my definitive treatise on the history of pork steaks, but that’s OK. I still felt vindicated enough to declare a small victory in the ongoing war against culinary misinformation.

The Plot Thickens

That victory, it turns out, proved Pyrrhic. Misinformation wants to be free, and it cannot be stopped. In fact, I am now helping propagate it, though completely against my will.

A few days ago, wondering whether the Wikipedia edit was starting to heal the Internet, I went to Google and typed "Who invented pork steaks?" into the search box. I was dismayed to see this pop up in the "Featured Snippets" pane.

Google Pork Steaks 1.png

I was even more dismayed when I saw the source that Google was attributing this "fact" to.

Google Pork Steaks 2.png

That's right. My own detailed article debunking the idea that Winfred E. Steinbruegge invented pork steaks is now being used by Google's artificial "intelligence" algorithm to claim that Winfred E. Steinbruegge invented pork steaks. And to make matters worse, the text that Google’s bot plucked out of my article isn't anything I wrote. It's the very passage that I quoted from the Wikipedia entry for the sole purpose of debunking it.

Any school child or food reporter who doesn't bother to click the link and follow through to the article is bound to go away with the wrong answer—and from my own website, no less!

I won't start ranting about how problematic Google's Featured Snippets are. Plenty of others have been doing that for years—see, for instance, this fine piece from Jack Nicas in the Wall Street Journal from back in 2017. It hasn't done a bit of good.

It doesn't give me much reassurance that these sort of snippet algorithms are particularly designed to support "virtual assistants" like Amazon's Alexa and Apple's Siri, where people are even less inclined (or even able) to click through and get context and detail.

There is a technical fix I’ve made within the markup of the article to instruct Google's crawler bots that they have poor reading comprehension. While waiting for that to work its way through, maybe we can crowdsource a correction. If you are so inclined, google "Who invented pork steaks," click on the Feedback link, and inform Google that the article they are linking to says the exact opposite.

Meanwhile, I guess I'll update the subtitle of my pork steak article to read, "Why You Should Never, Ever, Ever Believe Food History on Wikipedia. Or Google."

About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine, Restaurant Critic for the Post & Courier, and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including The Lost Southern Chefs, Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.

Related Reading

The Unexpurgated History of Pork Steaks

Or, Why You Should Never, Ever, Ever Believe Food History on Wikipedia