Monday, October 18, 2010

Beefsteaks - a lost tradition

Sometime you read something, or you come across something that makes you understand that you are living in the wrong era. It happened to me reading All you can hold for five bucks, by Joseph Mitchel, an article published in the New Yorker in 1939 about beefsteaks. (You can find the article in Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink (Modern Library Paperbacks), which I had mentioned the other day).

The term beefsteak refers to a 100% New York tradition that disappeared slowly in the '40s of last century. Beefsteaks were a men-only affair, massive community dinners where meat lovers were served all-you-can-eat dishes of steaks, lambs, kidneys, accompanied by as many pitchers and growler of beers as you wanted. Beefsteak started at the end of the XIX century as political fund raisers events, and had certain rules: no forks, no knives (you could only eat with your hands).

The real beefsteak: no silverware, no women, a lotta meat
After women were granted the right to vote, they started to appear in beefsteaks. According to some, this caused the tradition to die: women could not eat as much as men, and men would not eat as much meat, with their bare hands, in front of women looking at them reprehensibly ("women do not esteem a glutton", as Mr. Mitchel points out).

Also, women demanded - and obtained - that drinks other than beer start to be provided, that salads be served and that forks and knives be the tools of the trade. In a word, they took all the fun out of a beefsteak. However, it seems unlikely that this was the real reason for the disappearance of these events: it seems more likely that the tradition died out because of the costs involved, and because politicians had found alternative methods of fundraising.

Beefsteaks seem to be unconceivable at the moment (although it appears that a lighter version, where only sirloin is served, has thrived in New Jersey until now). Think about it: eating 5-10 kilos (10-20 pounds) of meat at once with your hands, drinking gallons of beer...However, pockets of resistance continue to exist: a beefsteak is organized each year in New York, normally in February, and I have every intention to go.


Britgirl said...

Oh wow...I had no idea what this was or that it ever existed. You must go to one and post your thoughts (and photos)to enlighten us further!

Tuscan foodie in America said...

Hi Britgirl, that's my plan!

Fabrizio Cariani said...

Hmmmm... I always knew I lived in the wrong age.

Tuscan foodie in America said...

Fabrizio, join the club!

desperate but not serious said...

Great! Good old days... a couple of things come to my mind:
the Panarda a traditional banquet from Abruzzo where the seat for hours and hours eating many different courses..
and Simpson in The Strand in London, UK where I got so used to get there with "friends" that the day I decided to go there with a girl (from Chicago!) we were refused entrance to the main hall.. it is (was?) a gentleman only area. It felt so "natural".

Tuscan foodie in America said...

I didn't know of the existance of the panarda...and I am a great supporter of gentlemen-only clubs. The British got that right.


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