The American “Beefsteak” – a Deeper Look

In my previous post, I suggested that the English Beefsteak Clubs (see the history laid out compactly by Wikipedia here) must have influenced the New York “beefsteak” dinner and creation of New York’s Beefsteak Club. The latter was associated with the Morgue, a 58th Street hall near a liquor store which often hosted beefsteaks in the 1890s.

A beefsteak is an informal, communal dinner, rooted in New York City and adjacent regions from the later-1800s until WW II. It survived in some outlying regions, Passaic, NJ for example, and is now undergoing revival in Manhattan and other cities.

The beefsteak is characterized by serving sliced steak on rounds of bread in basic surroundings with few accompaniments but beer, originally ale, is a sine qua non. 

Earliest accounts explain that men – the affairs were usually male-only until the 1930s – gathered in rude surroundings bereft of cutlery, table and chair, or even napkins. People sat on empty crates or kegs, and ate from the same which were covered with towels; these also served as napkins, in the fashion of some barbeque today.

While all classes of society indulged in beefsteaks, they were often associated with middle- and working class men. Business, historical, or political events provided the backdrop.

Non-meat food was, in principle, minimalist: often just celery or perhaps olives. In practice, a slightly wider range of food could be offered depending on who gave the event. The meat seems to have been, generally, sirloin or sometimes tenderloin, not chops or roasts. These cuts would have facilitated the slicing and serving in canapé form.

Butter was part of it, some accounts say the steaks were dipped in it, some say the bread was.

Sherry figures as an opening drink in some accounts and menus.

Serving lamb or mutton chops at the end of the meal also characterized many beefsteaks, giving rise to japes about “dessert”. One would think continuing volleys of beef on bread would satisfy the carnivorous urge. Yet for those who had stomach-room, a last fusillade from a different-calibre weapon was unleashed.

On Twitter, my attention was directed to an 1896 New York World story which credited the beefsteak phenomenon to a William Anton (Billy) Miller. He was a German immigrant who took over a bar called Shannon’s Corner in the 7th Ward. That area fronted on the East River, the Lower East Side, near docks and butcher shops and meat processing factories. It was not a prosperous district, and saloons and taverns proliferated.

The World story was a detailed look at how Miller cooked steak and states nearby butchers brought him their best cuts to fete their good customers. His particular way of cooking and serving, which had the hallmarks of the later beefsteaks on a smaller scale, became sought-after by a wider public including uptown “parties”.

I found a similar but not identical account in an 1893 New York Tribune story, but here Miller is called John Miller. I’m prepared to overlook the name inconsistency as the accounts otherwise broadly concur. Perhaps John was one of Billy’s sons. A known son, William S., later held beefsteaks in his carpentry shop using his father’s stove. A picture from the Museum of the City of New York’s website, see fourth-to-last image, offers excellent detail on numerous points including the ale, as in this instances glasses were used not pewter or porcelain. The beer is dark with a thin white head.

The 1893 story adds interesting detail on how Miller’s idea spread, involving in part a name well-known to beer fans today – Yuengling.

Did Miller create the beefsteak party and it later became a larger event with its essential features preserved? It is possible, but a couple of points. We have to separate the dinner from a club of the same name. I believe it is unlikely that the albeit loosely-structured Beefsteak Club in the 1897 Tribune story I referenced yesterday was not inspired by the English Beefsteak Club.

Numerous press stories on mid-1800s New York and London clubs mention the London Beefsteak Club. See this detailed account out of Troy, NY,  here. Other press accounts, in New York proper, reference the London Beefsteak Club between 1850 and 1900. None admittedly link it to the New York beefsteak fad, but that isn’t conclusive. For one thing, the world of clubmen and anything coming out of the 7th Ward would not have been connected in stories of this nature.

The point is, the English institution was certainly known in New York, despite the airy statement in the 1893 Tribune account that no such entity existed in Europe. The English club was originally connected to men of the stage. So was New York’s club mentioned. This suggests to me a London influence in the latter’s formation and purpose.

Whether the 58th Street Beefsteak Club created the dinner as a thing is less certain. The fact that two 1890s accounts credit Miller with the idea cannot be easily discounted. Still, I don’t rule out that such accounts are “heroic” in nature. It can surprisingly difficult to trace the origins of a given food or drink even within one generation let alone two. (Who really started the Cosmopolitan, Black IPA, poutine, the smoothie?).

Look at the elements of his meal: sliced steak on bread, sherry, ale, and celery, or it was later grafted on. All are typically British foods and drinks. Why would a typical American, of the lower ranks of society, drink sherry before beer, for example? Why not whiskey, gin, or cocktail? Or nothing?

Miller, a German, took over an English or Irish-sounding bar. The bar may well have served steaks earlier. The history of the porterhouse steak, and the shared English and American love of beef in general, underline the old connection of beef with Anglo-American culture.

Miller may simply have evolved a particularly popular steak dinner vs. the larger, semi-public event associated with the name beefsteak. But even if Miller influenced the later New York beefsteaks, the English elements to my mind, plus the communal/fraternal nature of the beefsteak, point to influence of London’s Beefsteak Club and the British-American chophouse/porterhouse in creating such events in New York.

Perhaps Miller contributed the idea of serving small slices on bread rounds, and eating with hands vs. a sit-down conventional meal. Certainly Stateside, beefsteaks had non-English features but as I said yesterday the core elements of the early-1700s English and later-1800s American meals are the same: beef, bread or potatoes, ale.

That, and the concurrent existence of London and New York beefsteak clubs suggest to me Miller cannot have had a decisive role in this story.

We know today that many iconic American drinks and foods have origins in England. Pulled pork does, the cocktail does, apple pie, bacon and eggs, pork and beans, the southern biscuit.

It is probably the same for the beefsteak-as-quasi-public dinner.

The Museum of the City of New York’s page on beefsteaks is careful to use a qualifying phrase in regard to Miller’s importance, it may be noted. While outlining the known history of his role, it states that “some accounts” indicate he created the beefsteak phenomenon.

But that Miller’s way with steak had some influence on what became an institution in New York, that is possible, yes.

I consulted by the way two (excellent) books on Google Books on the history of eating and restaurants in New York, one by William Grimes. I don’t find they add anything to this discussion.

[A third part to this discussion immediately follows].

Note re images: the first image was sourced at the Museum of the City of New York, here, and the second, from the menu archive of the New York Public Library, www.nypl.org, here. Both are used for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to their owners or authorized users, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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