Where’s The Beef? Read On.

That’s A Lot of Meat

In the research for my “musty ale” article, references abounded to beer, in general, being a keynote of “beefsteak dinners”. I knew vaguely what these were. I had read an article in the New York Times describing such a dinner still held annually in New Jersey.

A beefsteak was a communal dinner, informal in nature, and originally male-only. Of course, beef was the main event. Always, or almost always, beer – not wine, liquor or cocktails – was served. Usually, celery or some kind of simple vegetable was served as well. Apart from the sliced bread the meat was served on, that completed the offering, at least the core of it.

The beefsteak has enjoyed something of a revival in recent years. This apparently began in Manhattan, probably due to chefs reading the New York Times and readers encouraging them to bring back the beefsteaks of old. Articles on the revived dinners usually mention a 1939 article by Joseph Mitchell, of New Yorker fame.

He lauded the beefsteak as a symbol of old Manhattan. The onset of war probably ended any chance of a 1940s revival. Interest in the tradition, even the nostalgic sort, seems to disappear after Pearl Harbor.

The NYT adverted to the earlier history of the beefsteak, which intimately concerns Manhattan. This article in 2012 by Jennifer Wright in the Gloss fills in more of the backstory.

There are catering companies today who will do a beefsteak for you, not just in New York, but Chicago, L.A., and elsewhere. Some dinners are annual ticketed affairs.

The American beefsteak in its heyday was a democratic, somewhat anarchic affair. It was not uncommon for a W. C. Fields, Grampian Hills-like atmosphere to prevail. Today’s beefsteaks are more sedate in nature, due in part perhaps to the mixed company now prevailing.

Around 1900 the events were middle-class or working class in nature. Many were organized by employers for their staff, perhaps to recognize long service. Fraternal and political groups, some connected Tammany Hall, typically held them.

What of the origins of the beefsteak?  An 1897 article in the New York Tribune offered a sardonic but in-depth look. It explained that a joint with the unsettling name “the Morgue”, on West 58th Street, stimulated what had clearly become an institution by the year of writing. The Morgue was a kind of shed adjoining a liquor store, the Gilded Age version of an event space.

In the picture above we see one similar to the description in the Tribune. If you read the legend carefully, it seems Mark Twain was feted at the event.

Minimal decor and furnishings were order of the day for a beefsteak, as seen above. In time tables and chairs became accepted.

The Tribune explained with a dry humour the basic elements of the beefsteak, down to the seasonings for the meat – salt and pepper but oddly sugar too. It mentions that ale was consumed with the dinner but not type or quality. Still, ale was the first thing set on the “tables”, not the steak – reversing the order the journalist, a bit of a bluenose, thought proper.

The Morgue’s affairs were hosted by a Beefsteak Club. This club, democratic in its membership (except for all male), had a predominant element of show people. The New York theatre district was nearby, of course.

While the Tribune doesn’t say so, it seems that beefsteaks migrated to Tammany and beyond from this hub.

Where did Manhattan showpeople get the idea to establish a Beefsteak Club? It had to be from England’s clubs of that name, which have similar theatrical origins. Starting about 1700, actors and others associated with the stage chose beef as centrepiece of their entertainments to symbolize British fraternity and patriotism.

While ale and the tavern were central to the British clubs’ founding, their social composition was always more elite than for the American versions.

Wikipedia has a well-paced elucidation of the English clubs. Their influence on the American beefsteak events seems obvious. Steak, potatoes, porter, and sometimes port were served at the dinners. America careened the idea to more popular, unadorned purposes, but the British origin of the American beefsteaks seems clear.

In its 21st century reincarnation the beefsteak has become gentrified, an irony which nonetheless recalls the overseas origins of the dinners. Beeretseq, for his part, is not opposed to gentrification, an age-old and inevitable process of social development.

Anyway, the core elements of the American beefsteak – beef, beer, a starch, a crunchy vegetable or two – have remained constant. Even when held in suburban New Jersey, contemporary dinners show their distant Manhattan inspiration.

A glass of red wine might make an appearance, or an appetizer of Italian origin, but in sum the Jersey dinners are worthy descendants of the original.

I’ll let the Tribune explain how the oldtime American beefsteaks might end, to serve as my own finis:

The cook goes on cooking as long as he thinks that anybody can be induced to eat steaks. After that he broils a few lamb chops, which are served for dessert. The dinner ends with these, unless there is still some ale left which somebody wants to finish up. After the dinner the guests may entertain one another, if they feel like entertaining, or there may be speaking, if anybody is still able to speak. The safest way, if entertainment is desired, is to hire performers for it who do not join in the dinner.

[See Part II, entitled The American “Beefsteak” – a Deeper Look, here].

Note re image: the image above was sourced from the Brooklyn Beefsteak website, here. It is used for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.

8 thoughts on “Where’s The Beef? Read On.”

  1. I did a post on beefsteak dinners a few years back. One of the key elements in the early years, as David Wondrich wrote, was that the men pretended to be uncivilized and didn’t use utensils. They usually sat on boxes in the basements of restaurants, in a dungeon-like space, and ate with their hands — a male bonding event for groups who worked together, were attending conventions, or belonged to the same party, etc.

    • There was a strata of dinners that were much more formal, sometimes with women present even before 1920. These have a likely UK inspiration IMO and perhaps gave rise to the downhome variety. It could have been the other way around, but I don’t think so.

  2. Gary–
    I have been staging these occasionally since the mid-2000s, complete with aprons and paper hats and endless toasts. There’s nothing more fun, that’s for sure. The big difference with the doings of the Society of Steaks and the other London beefsteak societies and the New York ones was the latter’s insistence that one eat with one’s hands. To me, that is one of the essential characteristics of a New York beefsteak. “It ain’t a real beefsteak unless you get grease on your ears,” as one participant said in Mitchell’s piece (I’m quoting from memory). He wasn’t wrong.

    • Nice! Definite differences between the English and U.S. approaches, but I feel the English tradition must be at the root of tbe other. Look for next posts.

  3. Tom, and David, I fully expect by end of the year to read that “beefsteaks” in London, served under railway arches with people sitting on boxes and the heads of firkins, are the latest American-inspired rage. While the English Beefsteak Club, pictured in the Wikipedia account mentioned, blithely carries on. Kind of like IPA.

    Now, there is an alternative explanation for the American “beefsteak”, contemporary more or less with the 1897 Tribune story, which I’ll discuss later. While interesting, I am still persuaded by the inference of show people adopting a practice of their brethern in England. There are just too many connections between England and America here, the stage, the steak, the ale, to think otherwise.

    Gary

  4. And if we look carefully, we can see Mark Twain standing in the centre against the wall with his partner also being feted, the Standard Oil magnate H.H. Rogers.

  5. Reisenweber’s was a huge, multistory restaurant-nightclub on Columbus Circle with a vague German theme. The Original Dixieland Jass Band, who brought New Orleans jazz to New York, made their debut there on the place’s cabaret floor.

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