January 1893, Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, "New York Restaurant Life," pg. 108, col. 2:
Five or six years ago some glutton revived the barbarous practice of eating great chunks of steak without knife and fork. It was the season of "Beefsteak Clubs." A place - sometimes the loft of a stable - was rented by a party of gentlemen for the evening. The steak was cooked in a square iron box. The wood fire in the oven was allowed to burn until the embers formed a red-hot bed several inches deep. Cubical slabs of beef were placed on an ash grate, which is poked into the embers, where it is broiled to a turn or charred mass. The steaks, each weighing a pound or more, are served on hot pewter plates, together with crackers and pieces of bread, and washed down with copious draughts of ale and porter. One rule governing a beefsteak club is that there must be no chairs, tables, knives, forks or napkins. And so the New York "swell," like little Lord Fauntleroy, seated on a cracker box or barrel, helps himself to meat and bread with his dainty fingers. The Beefsteakers have grown tired of gastronomic fooling, and one must look elsewhere for midnight scenes of savagery and revelery.
(The article contains drawings of a "QUICK LUNCH" and "DOWNTOWN MERCHANTS' BEEFSTEAK CLUB" - ed.)
All You Can Hold for Five Bucks
by Joseph Mitchell
Issue of 1939-04-15
The New York 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 barbecue. Some old chefs believe it had its origin sixty or seventy years ago, when butchers from the slaughterhouses on the East River would sneak choice loin cuts into the kitchens of nearby saloons, grill them over charcoal, and feast on them during their Saturday-night sprees.
In any case, the institution was essentially masculine until 1920, when it was debased by the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States. The Eighteenth Amendment brought about mixed drinking; a year and a half after it went into effect, the salutation "We Greet Our Better Halves" began to appear on the souvenir menus of beefsteaks thrown by bowling, fishing, and chowder clubs and lodges and labor unions. The big, exuberant beefsteaks thrown by Tammany and Republican district clubs always had been strictly stag, but not long after the Nineteenth Amendment gave women the suffrage, politicians decided it would be nice to invite females over voting age to clubhouse beefsteaks. "Womenfolks didn't know what a beefsteak was until they got the right to vote," an old chef once said.
It didn't take women long to corrupt the beefsteak. They forced the addition of such things as Manhattan cocktails, fruit cups, and fancy salads to the traditional menu of slices of ripened steaks, double lamb chops, kidneys, and beer by the pitcher. They insisted on dance orchestras instead of brassy German bands. 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, but women 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. Until around 1920, beefsteak etiquette was rigid. Knives, forks, napkins, and tablecloths never had been permitted; a man was supposed to eat with his hands.
When beefsteaks became bisexual, the etiquette changed. For generations men had worn their second-best suits because of the inevitability of grease spots; tuxedos and women appeared simultaneously. Most beefsteaks degenerated into polite banquets at which open-face sandwiches of grilled steak happened to be the principal dish. However, despite the frills introduced by women, two schools of traditional steak-dinner devotees still flourish. They may conveniently be called the East Side and West Side schools. They disagree over matters of menu and etiquette, and both claim that their beefsteaks are the more classical or old-fashioned.
30 May 1950, New York Herald Tribune, pg. 9, col. 7:
"Beefsteak," A Political Shindig,
Is a Place for Hearty Appetites
Westheimer Market Provides 3,000 Lbs. of Steak,
1,500 Lbs. of Lamb, Plus Other Meats
By Clementine Paddleford
No one has truly eaten until he attends a "beefsteak." This is a form of gluttony that belongs especially to New York and the political arena as the barbecue and the chili bowl belong to Texas. Now at long last we have put a "beefsteak menu" under the belt. The occasion was the beefsteak dinner and dance given by the John De Salvio Association 2d Assembly District, Inc., in memory of Jimmy Kelly. The place was Webster Hall, East Side, Manhattan. The meat man who prepared those 3,000 pounds of steak, the 1,500 pounds of lamb chops, the 425 pounds of hamburger, the 1,300 pounds of split kidneys with bacon was none other than son Sidney, of William Wertheimer and Son, the meat purveyors, located at First Avenue and Nineteenth Street.
The Wertheimer Market has been specializing in the selecting, cutting and selling of beefsteaks for big eating affairs since the turn of the century. They supplied meat for "Beefsteak" Tom McGowan who was the big beefsteak functionary (arranging beefsteaks as a hobby) until his death in 1924. Then the Wertheimers took over as there was no one else around wanting Tom's job.
No chefs in the shop, but they will engage chefs and waiters and set a party in action and keep it smooth-running without extra fees. That to be obliging and because Sidney Wertheimer has a great respect for meat and doesn't want his fine steaks ruined by poor preparation.
(Long article cut - ed.)
During the prohibition years the beefsteak degenerated, Sidney Wertheimer tells us, into polite little gatherings in home bars. And (Col. 8 - ed.) women were there. And women are a corruptive element. They want to introduce napkins and fruit cups and such siliness. Now the old fashioned beefsteak is come again to full flower. Bear and meat on the menu; and rightfully only men on the guest list, but the women push in. Since prohibition was outlawed the Wertheimer firm has been averaging 100 beefsteaks a year and that means parties where more than 100 pounds of beef are required. Any amount sold under that doesn't count as a party.
For home affairs, and these are usually women-planned, the meat firm cuts steak ready for the grill to ship from Florida to Maine. They prepare exactly the same steaks for home entertaining as for gang affairs where men eat with their fingers and drink beer out of cans.
The beefsteak dinner custom didn’t die out - it just relocated. For the past few generations it’s been entirely a North Jersey thing. The focus shifted from political clubs to union locals, and from power brokers to working stiffs. Not one in 50 has probably heard of Tammany Hall and not one in 50,000 of Clementine Paddleford.
Still - what a wonderful way to eat meat and drink brew.
I have found that in the state that separates ours, being New Jersey, and also in Philadelphia, there is a custom called, “Beef and Beer,” owing it’s generation to these Beefsteak Parties which you have named.
It is a similar event, where the beef is accompanied by freshly baked bread, and other such sides. There are many forms of beef, from the rib to the eye, and all come with all the ale one can consume.
I believe that the tradition has not been lost, but has just moved into the suburbs with everyone else during The Great Exodus of 1950. I think you will find much a similar event in these Beef and Beer parties, a joyous occasion still.