The New York Times, on Jan. 30, 2008, called “All You Can Hold for Five Bucks” “something of a Rosetta stone among fans of old New York and carnivorous foodies.” That classic piece is a 1939 New Yorker article by Joseph Mitchell. It begins, “The New York State steak dinner, or “beefsteak,” is a form of gluttony as stylized and regional as the riverbank fish fry, the hot-rock clambake, or the Texas barbeque.”
But what is it, really, and why does New Jersey also claim title to it?
Beefsteaks began in New York in the late 1800s as boisterous, community-based mass feeding events. They held sway in New York for the better part of a century before their decline. They were often political in nature—think Tammany Hall—even though political speeches were verboten. They featured unlimited servings of steak, lamb chops, bacon-wrapped lamb kidneys, shrimp, crabmeat and beer. They were also conspicuous in what they didn’t feature: the niceties of silverware, napkins or women.
Repeal of this latter item, the absence of women, contributed to the demise of beefsteaks. Women’s suffrage teamed up with prohibition to deal a one-two punch. What fun is a public dinner without alcohol? Also, once women were invited, they began requesting such unmanly dishes as pastas and other foods not traditionally served. Remember, too, that the dinners were tools of the Tammany political machine, labor unions and fraternal organizations. As they declined, so did the beefsteaks. Still, the tradition has never entirely died out.
Chef Waldy Malouf has hosted an annual beefsteak dinner at his midtown restaurant, Beacon, for the past dozen years. He believes the truth behind the beefsteak falling out of favor in New York is even deeper, saying, “I think that’s because the beefsteak is a very community-based thing, and today’s New Yorkers don’t always have a very strong sense of community. And as Manhattan eventually got more sophisticated and less blue-collar, the beefsteak may have become frowned upon here.”
This thinking leads us back to New Jersey. As beefsteaks were waning in New York, there was a burgeoning interest in New Jersey. Their version of the beefsteak harkens back to 1938 when Garret Nightingale—a Clifton, New Jersey, butcher and grocer—started catering parties that followed a set formula: Take tenderloins, grill them over charcoal, and then dip slices of the meat in melted butter. Serve the slices over white sandwich bread and call them beefsteaks.
Perhaps we should say that the beefsteak was born in New York and reborn in New Jersey, where it has become a showcase of local produce. In New York, it was always thought of as primarily a social gathering. The long late Nightingale also thought he knew why there was a decline just after women got the vote. As quoted in The New York Times: “A man isn’t inclined to eat as much if his wife or girlfriend is watching. After their 15th or 18th slice, she kind of gives him the look and makes him stop.” Nightingale Catering has now been in the family for four or five generations—and they are still serving their New Jersey version of the beefsteak.
Which brings us back to the present. It’s time to stop with the history lesson and start with the steaks. Where’s my first one?
If your curiosity is piqued and you think you may be interested in attending a New York beefsteak, one complete with the old traditions, there is an upcoming March 4, 2012, beefsteak that should satiate your curiosity as well as your hunger. For more information or to make a reservation, click here or go to the following business website: chefstodinefor.com. To get a sense of what a Chefs to Dine For event is like, read “An Ocean of Fun at Oceana,” on Rodney Bedsole’s blog, shoot&eat.
RULES OF THE ROAD
No napkins. (That’s the purpose of aprons.)
No silverware. (Okay, you can fudge on this but we don’t recommend such unnecessary tools.)
No lack of a butcher’s hat. (Maybe it will be your first step toward donning a toque one day.)
No limits as to 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, 5ths … (In helpings, of course.)
No need to be courteous. (Grab for that last steak on the platter; it’s yours.)
No shyness allowed. (This is simply neither the place nor the time for it.)
No political speeches allowed. (However, sterling conversation is encouraged.)
No not allowing women. (Contorted language, yes, but see the article above.)
No reserved seating. (Original beefsteaks furnished old wooden crates, so you’ve got it good.)
No, bread isn’t just for eating. (It’s for soaking up grease, so feel free to stack it or eat it.)