Weeping at the Circus? Not.
Although tending to the popular in America, beefsteak dinners could attract the striving middle class or intelligentsia such as writers and artists. Consequently, the dinners could assume a more elaborate aspect than the ethos typically disclosed.
I mentioned earlier a rather refined, 1878 menu of a New York Beefsteak Society, preserved in the Museum of the City of New York. The site of the dinner was not specified but may have been a posh hotel or restaurant, or perhaps a member’s mansion. Since the location is not known, the menu was perhaps a plan not realized, although it bears a specific date, May 11, 1878.
I mentioned also the Washington, D.C. journalists’ club, the Gridiron Society. This group was only loosely connected to the beefsteak tradition inaugurated by English clubs in the 1700s, but the very name suggests transpontine inspiration.
The Gridiron Society met other fraternal groups on occasion including, once, a New York beefsteak society. In an (1890s) Gridiron Club memoir, Washington Post editor Henry Litchfield West described an evening shared with New York beefsteak men, noting “plain, plebeian beer” was served.
Despite the surprise evinced by West at the New York club’s routines, he seems to have enjoyed the dinner including the “amber” ale, which he lauded as “refreshing” and as if “brewed by Gambrinus”.
(I.e., it wasn’t his go-to drink).
Below we see the menu for a dinner given by the Chicago Piano and Organ Association a few years ahead of WW I. Maybe Chicago with its striving ethos felt steak and ale were too simple, so it mounted a luxury affair featuring caviar and fine wine. Indeed, the generally indispensable beer made no appearance but the menu still billed the event as a beefsteak.
Manufacturing musical instruments was an established business in North America then. Leading piano merchants were local gentry. Since the factories’ customers were presumably a refined lot, knowledgeable of classical music certainly, perhaps it was felt this Chicago Beefsteak needed upgrading.
Another event, in Bisbee, Arizona in 1903, hewed more to the New York beefsteak pattern although attended by a prosperous young business class vs. the pressmen, conductors, and fraternal organizations typical of New York beefsteaks.
The Arizona fete was held on the rooftop of a private home. An account in a Bisbee newspaper is telling in a number of ways. Women attended. Indeed the dinner was thought a boon for them since less preparation and cleaning were involved than for standard hosting.
Music and singing took place, drifting over the silent flats nearby, which the journalist thought a bizarre effect. So it must have seemed in proto-Sinclair Lewis land.
The essential Bohemian spirit of the night did not elude the writer, though:
… [a beefsteak] doesn’t sound dignified, nor is it. Who would think of preserving dignity at a beefsteak dinner? It would be like weeping at a circus. Dignity and a beefsteak dinner would be a sad combination. Conservatism cannot exist on a roof top with champagne boxes in front of it and the entire atmosphere permeated with bohemianism. If you are not spry you are likely to go hungry. The beefsteak is piping hot when you get it and you must exercise a bit of ingenuity in eating.
At bottom, a beefsteak meant enjoying some downtime with birds of a feather and simple but good food. Joseph Mitchell understood this in 1939, for his New Yorker sketch mentioned earlier. Still, the upwardly-mobile found ways to enhance the event to their purpose.
Beefsteaks might even feature champagne, claret, caviar, rare vegetables, and other delicacies.
Note re image: The image above was sourced from the New York Public Library, www.nypl.org, see here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to its lawful owner, as applicable. Image is used for educational or historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.