Where’s The Beef? Read On.

That’s A Lot of Meat

In the course of researching my musty ale article, I came across references to such ale served at “beefsteak dinners”. I knew vaguely what these were, as I had read an article in the New York Times some years ago reporting on an annual dinner of that name in New Jersey.

In short, a beefsteak is a communal dinner, informal in nature, originally male-only. Of course beef is the main event. And always, or almost always, beer – not wine, liquor or cocktails – is served. Usually celery or some kind of simple greenery is added. Apart from the bread slices the meat is served on, nothing else need be offered.

If you do a bit of checking on the beefsteak, you will see it has come in for a bit of a revival. This seems to have started in Manhattan, probably due to chefs reading the New York Times or readers encouraging them to recreate the beefsteaks of old New York. Many articles on the revived beefsteak mention an article in 1939 by Joseph Mitchell, of New Yorker fame, who lauded the beefsteak as a symbol of old Manhattan. The onset of the war probably ended any chance of serious revival, and it seems to have disappeared pretty much after Pearl Harbor.

The NYT article noted the earlier history of the beefsteak, which intimately concerns Manhattan, so it was natural to bring it back. This article in the Gloss by Jennifer Wright in 2012 gives the fuller backstory.

And now, there are catering companies who will do a beefsteak for you, not just in New York, but Chicago, L.A., and elsewhere. Some organize annual ticketed affairs for this purpose.

The American beefsteak is a democratic, somewhat anarchic affair at which a W. C. Fields-like Grampian Hills atmosphere prevails, or used to. Based on various reports, it seems beefsteaks today are more sedate in nature, due probably to the (entirely salutary) presence of all genders.

Around 1900, these affairs were mostly middle-class or working class in nature. Many were organized by companies as a gesture to their staff or for long service. Some were typical of fraternal organizations, the Masons, say. Some were political in nature, connected to Tammany Hall.

What are the origins of the beefsteak? This 1897 article in the New York Tribune is a sardonic but inquiring look at the subject. It explains that a place with the unsettling name the Morgue, on West 58th Street, was a stimulus to what had clearly become an institution by the year of writing. The Morgue was a kind of shed near a liquor store (cum saloon?), probably what is today called an event space.

The one pictured above looks similar to the description in the Trib. It may have been the space in question as perhaps Reisen Weber was the saloon’s name. If you read the legend carefully, it seems Mark Twain was feted at the event pictured.

Minimal accoutrements were the order of the day, as you see above although table and chair later became usual.

The Trib explains with dry humour the basic elements of the beefsteak, down to the seasoning used – salt and pepper but also sugar, oddly. It mentions that ale was consumed with the dinner, not a desideratum, but an indispensable matter of first importance. Sadly, the Trib doesn’t inquire as to type or quality but as it noted, the ale was the first thing to go on the “tables”, not the steak, reversing the order the journalist (a bit of a bluenose) thought proper.

The key thing in the story which enables us to know the true origins of the beefsteak is that the Morgue affairs were productions of a Beefsteak Club. And this club, typically American in its acceptance of all and sundry as members (save women), had a predominant element of show people. The New York theatre district was and is nearby, of course.

While the Trib doesn’t say so, it seems obvious the beefsteaks migrated to Tammany and beyond from this hub. And where did Manhattan showmen get the idea to establish a beefsteak club? It had to be from England’s clubs of that name which have precisely the same theatrical origins. Starting about 1700, actors and others associated with the stage chose beef to feature at their entertainments as a symbol of British fraternity and patriotism. The membership quickly became more generalized. While ale and the tavern were central to the clubs’ founding, the social composition was always more elite than was seen in the American version.

Wikipedia gives a well-paced, detailed elucidation of the English Beefsteak clubs. It shows their obvious influence on the American beefsteak events. It notes that steak, potato, porter, and sometimes port were served at the meetings. That port featured in some of the British gatherings underlines that the British clubs were more exclusive. America careened the idea of the beefsteak to its own purposes.

The beefsteak is now being gentrified, which will strike some as an unfortunate irony yet it is simply bringing the thing back to its roots. (Anyway, we don’t see anything wrong with gentrification).

But the core elements of the American beefsteak – some starch, some beef, some beer – remained as in the old sod. Even as held in suburban New Jersey, and be it organized by people with Italian, Slavic, or Irish names, these loadstones, of Albion, remain.

We’ll let the Trib explain the ending of the raucous old American beefsteak, to serve as our ending:

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.


  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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