The Higher End of the “Beefsteak”

Although tending to the popular in America, beefsteak dinners could attract the striving middle class, or intelligentsia such as writers or artists. These dinners could assume a more elaborate aspect than the usual raucous Beefsteak, a stripped down affair that focused on beef albeit top-quality, bread, and beer.

I mentioned earlier the refined, 1878 menu of the New York Beefsteak Society, preserved at the Museum of the City of New York. The venue was not specified but may have been a hotel, restaurant, or member’s mansion. Since the location is not known, perhaps the dinner was never held although the menu 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 of the 1700s, but the name suggests an overseas inspiration.

The Gridiron Society occasionally dined with other fraternal groups including, once, a New York beefsteak society. In a Gridiron Club memoir published in the 1890s, the Washington Post editor Henry Litchfield West described the evening, noting that “plain, plebeian beer” was served.

The patrician West was a little discomfited at the New York club’s informality, but seems to have enjoyed the dinner. He lauded its amber ale as if “brewed by Gambrinus” and “refreshing” (i.e., it wasn’t his go-to).

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” was too simple. It mounted a luxury affair featuring caviar and fine wine.

Indeed, beer, generally a stand-by at the Beesfteak, made no appearance at all but the event was still billed as a Beefsteak.

Making musical instruments was an established business in North America then. The leading piano merchants were local gentry. Since their customers were presumably a refined lot, maybe it was felt the Beefsteak template could stand embellishment.

Moving further west, a Beefsteak in Bisbee, Arizona in 1903 hewed more to the traditional pattern although attended by a prosperous young business class vs., say, the pressmen, conductors, and fraternal organizations more typical of New York Beefsteaks.

The Arizona fete took place on the roof of a private home. An account in a Bisbee newspaper is telling in a number of ways. First, women were admitted. Indeed the dinner was thought a boon for them due to the minimalist serving arrangements (less work to set up and clean).

There were music and singing, the notes drifting over silent blocks nearby, which the journalist thought an odd effect. So it must have seemed in a proto-Sinclair Lewis period.

The essential Bohemian spirit was preserved, in other words. The writer stated:

… [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, the Beefsteak was enjoying downtime with birds of a feather and simple, but good food. The writer Joseph Mitchell understood this in 1939, for his famous New Yorker sketch of the Beefsteak I noted earlier. Still, the upwardly-mobile enhanced a popular event to their purpose. Fair enough.

 

 

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.