May it Please the Palate: "Beefsteak, the Event - 'All you can hold for five bucks'"

By Nick Roumel The impulse item at the bookstore got me. Sitting on a rack by the cash register, there it was: "Secret Ingredients, The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink." The cover blurb said "You couldn't ask for a more diverse, dazzling collection of writers." The back jacket promised "Woody Allen on dieting the Dostoevski way," "Chang-rae Lee on eating sea urchin," "Alice McDermott on sex and ice cream," and the eminently quotable "Dorothy Parker on dinner conversation." Only $18, and yes, Uncle Sam, I can write it off. So I took it home and dug in. What I didn't expect was that the very first essay was about something I'd never heard of. A cultural and political event that flourished in New York City around the turn of the 20th Century, so hot that it had rival East Side and West Side versions, and there is even a revival today. Yes, I'm talking about the Beefsteak. Not as a food item, but as a cultural event. I learned this from my new book, and Joseph Mitchell's 1939 historical essay ("All You Can Hold for Five Dollars") about these meat orgies, that featured gluttonous displays of all you can eat steak, served with no utensils, no chairs or tables, and copious volumes of beer. They began to flourish as Tammany Hall (Democrat) and Republican fundraisers, They were strictly "stag" until about 1920 when women joined the fray, adding feminine touches, as Mitchell describes, such as "Manhattan cocktails, fruit cups, and fancy salads to the traditional menu of slices of ripened steak, double lamb chops, kidneys, and beer by the pitcher." Mitchell described one Beefsteak where the chief butcher had finished cutting the meat for an anticipated crowd of 350. He had carved steaks off 35 steer shells, had cut 450 double-rib lamb chops, and 450 lamb kidneys. Mitchell describes the "classical beefsteak" as sliced off the shell, or a section of the hindquarter of a steer, called "short loin without the fillet." At the butcher, a rough comparable is a "thick Delmonico." The shells were sliced into six boneless, fatless steaks, each three inches thick and ten inches long, which are broiled. Then each steak is sliced further into about ten slices, which are served on platters to the crowd with a traditional butter-Worcestershire gravy, over slices of day-old bread or toast, depending on whether you are East Side or West Side school of thought. Men were encouraged to eat like pigs. Mitchell says that pre-prohibition, "The life of the party at a beefsteak used to be the man who let out the most ecstatic grunts, drank the most beer, ate the most steak, and got the most grease on his ears." Men sat on beer crates and ate off the tops of beer barrels. They were not allowed napkins or utensils, but were given butchers' aprons to wipe the grease off their faces. They rinsed their hands with beer when they were ready to grab a fresh steak from the platter. Entertainment ranged from Irish or German storytellers to "drunken German bands," until the aforementioned women came and insisted on dance orchestras with their fruit salads. Mitchell notes, "Women do not esteem a glutton, and at a contemporary beefsteak it is unusual for a man to do away with more than three pounds of meat and twenty-five glasses of beer." Perhaps because of Mitchell's article being revived in the new book, Beefsteaks are enjoying a renaissance. The New York Times reported in April about the new trend, but also noted differences, like: "Instead of jowly union men, there were cosmetics representatives in skinny designer jeans. An artist had been hired to sculpt a "golden calf" out of day-old bread from Whole Foods." And there was chimichurri sauce. But shades of old-fashioned gluttony were also in the house: platters of steaks passed around and plucked off with greedy fingers; a woman named "Beefsteak Betty" exhorting the crowd with chants of "Beef!" People refused to eat their bread, but instead stacked the pieces in front of them to show how much beef they had consumed. And of course, the beer flowed freely. Some things never change. Published: Mon, Nov 28, 2011