A Thoroughly Modern Beefsteak Banquet

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According to Wikipedia:

Beefsteak banquets originated among the working class of New York City in the mid-1800s as celebratory meals or “testimonials”. The meal would generally be set up by an organization wishing to laud or raise money for politicians, newly promoted friends, or celebrities.

Early beefsteaks were held in a relaxed, men-only atmosphere, with diners sitting on crates and eating with their fingers off of rough, improvised tables in saloons, rental halls, or residential basements. Food and drink were the focus of the evening, and entertainment often consisted simply of those present telling stories and singing amongst themselves.

With the passing of the 18th [Prohibition] and 19th [Women’s Suffrage] amendments to the U.S. Constitution, in 1919 and 1920, respectively, the traditional men-only, beer-soaked format of the beefsteak began to change. Politicians began including newly enfranchised women voters in their beefsteak banquets after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, and with the attendance of women came corresponding social niceties. Cocktails, popularized by illicit drinkers during Prohibition, replaced pitchers of beer, and “fruit cups[,] and fancy salads” were soon added to beefsteak menus. Orchestras were hired in place of old-fashioned brass bands and storytellers, and the long-forbidden knives and forks began to appear on beefsteak tables.

By the 1930s, according to Joseph Mitchell, beefsteaks were no longer the manly, messy affairs they had once been; they were now closer to formal meals in which beef and bread happened to feature heavily. The cheerful gluttony of the past was tempered by female sensibilities; “women,” Mitchell reported, “do not esteem a glutton, and at a contemporary beefsteak it is unusual for a man to do away with more than six pounds of meat and thirty glasses of beer.”

Beefsteak banquets have largely vanished from New York City, where they originated, but remain widespread in Bergen and Passaic counties in New Jersey. The institution is now almost entirely limited to these areas, save for a popular biannual beefsteak held in Brooklyn. . .

. . . as well as an annual beefsteak banquet in Salem’s Historic Derby Street Neighborhood.

I love a festive communal meal especially one with historic resonance, and all the better if I can disrupt gendered spaces in the process!

For our third annual beefsteak banquet, I cooked at my female-identified friend’s house and we invited guests of all genders to come taste our meat. We provided no utensils, but plenty of pesto butter. And in a nod to modern conventions asked guests to bring a finger-friendly veg (if they were so inclined).

Also, I steamed lobsters.

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Despite being in mixed company we made no concessions to weaker sensibilities. We were vegans and Paleo-ites, old friends who’d lived in the neighborhood for decades and new friends who’d just moved from a foreign country. It was perhaps a self-selecting crowd, but all were more than capable of breaking into a lobster claw with their bare hands, and none afraid of getting their hands dirty.

In the past, I’d ordered fancy beef from a fancy source, but this year for whatever reason I simply picked up a couple eyes of round at the neighborhood grocer that I dry-brined overnight and found a clever sounding roasting technique (7 minutes per pound at 475 Fahrenheit, then turn off the oven but DO NOT OPEN THE DOOR for two hours).

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Alas, my understanding of the relationship of surface area to heat distribution is a little fuzzy, so while our beefsteak was delicious, and quite tender especially after a dunk in jus and a dollop of pesto, it frankly resembled “the other white meat” more than boeuf. . .

[In hindsight, I should not have calculated using the total weight, but something like an average, and it probably would not have been ruinous to open the oven and take a quick internal temp mid-rest.]

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For a while, I attempted to correct folks complimenting the delicious and tender “pork,” but eventually realized, “why, bother?”

Their joy and delight was the same whether the subject of the sentence was accurate or not, and the subject of their sentence had little invested in being correctly identified. Pork or beef or lobster, eaten by male or female identified, the goal’s the same: delicious delightful decadent.

We’ve broken a lot of beefsteak rules over the years, but we’ve also been militant about maintaining the integrity of the tradition.

How do we decide where to draw the line? What’s essential to the experience, worth defending? And, what’s a relic of a particular time and place, ripe for expansion and creation?

It’s a series of questions that’s relevant to much more than reinvigorating nineteenth century dining traditions. Indeed, it’s essentially the framework for civilization’s evolution, and I’m starting to think the “answers” can be found in the grammar. . .

What’s essential are not really the subjects: men, beef, pork, New York.

What’s worth defending is the spirit of the experience (verbs): camaraderie, abundance, getting your hands dirty, freedom from dependence on tools (technology).

Diving deep into the nature of experience, exploiting the potential, and expanding the invitation are, I believe, the root of expansive life affirming traditions.

How different would some of the seismic debates we’ve navigated over the years be if we spent less effort arguing over the subjects (e.g. Amendment 19, Who gets to vote?) and took more care defending the spirit of our shared experience (e.g. Amendments 18 and 21, Prohibition and its repeal)?

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