Beefsteak dinner at Reisenwebers to honour H.H. Rogers & Mark Twain, Apr. 1908

Beefsteak dinner at Reisenwebers to honour H.H. Rogers & Mark Twain, Apr. 1908

Election season is finally over and it feels like it should be time to breathe a huge sigh of relief and make space in your brain for thoughts not related to polling places, the electoral college, or campaign promises, but you would be wrong. You still can’t seem to go anywhere without being asked to donate to some politician or cause (some worthier than others). Political fundraising seems like it’s reached its critical mass as of late, and with ticket prices reaching into the thousands for some more prominent politician’s fundraisers (and seats at their more important tables). The amount of time and money poured into the political machine that is, for better or worse, the United States of America could appear to be a new phenomenon to the casual observer; a bastardization of the vision our founding fathers had for a “once great nation.”  However, political fundraising dinners have been around for much longer than most would guess.

The beefsteak fundraiser began in the late 1800’s and steadily became more and more popular until the 1920’s, when some argue the 19th amendment changed the atmosphere into something more refined and less fun. Sometimes used to buy votes, the cheap ticket prices promised all you can eat and drink, plus entertainment and the opportunity to spend time with noteworthy and influential people in New York City (and arguably national)  politics. They were thrown by friends of recently elected officials to celebrate new positions, as well as men’s clubs, “theatrical” types, and fraternities. Famous honorees were Boss Tweed, Mark Twain, Sophie Tucker, and Bill Robinson. Generally political in nature, after an election or promotion was won, a politician’s colleagues would invite all the important campaign contributors and other prominent party members to celebrate by eating and drinking their fill. Originally, men would crowd into small, hot rooms in the cellars or back-rooms of restaurants or taverns (jokingly referred to as dungeons) and spend hours consuming meat, rye bread, and beer. They had German brass bands to lead in songs and storytellers or vaudeville actors to entertain, ate with their hands, and used crates and barrels for tables and chairs. The attire was purposely poor. They came dressed in older, more worn suits, which were topped with aprons that served as napkins and tall chefs hats. As time went on, they moved the dinners into hotel dining rooms and halls to accommodate more diners, but retained their messy style. Once women gained the right to vote, and were therefore invited to the fundraisers, the male patrons began to dress better and drink less, so as not to embarrass their wives. The inclusion of women also brought on some more tangible changes, in the form of more courses being added to the menu and dancing at the end.

A Beefsteak Dinner menu for the Brotherhood Of Commercial Travelers, December 27, 1899.  Via NYPL

A Beefsteak Dinner menu for the Brotherhood Of Commercial Travelers, December 27, 1899. Via NYPL

There were two distinct styles of beefsteak, the East Side and West Side schools, with specific chefs specialising in one or the other. The person throwing the event would pick a location to throw their event, usually a hall, restaurant, or hotel, and then the space would contact a butcher who would prepare the meat. They could also request some chefs and experienced waiters to be sent for an additional cost. The main difference between the styles was variations on the menu. The West Side school began with celery, radishes, olives, and scallions. Next, they served crabmeat cocktails. After that they sent out lamb or pig kidneys, and then baked potatoes. Last, they sent the steak which they prepared by placing slices of steak on hot toast with butter gravy. The East Side school argued that their way was more old fashioned and served more meat. They began with celery and radishes, then hamburgers with a slice of onion on bread. Next came the steaks, sliced and then dipped into a sauce of butter, steak drippings, and a little worcester sauce, and then laid onto day old bread, followed by lamb chops. Last, the waiters brought out kidneys topped with a slice of bacon. Once the diners seemed full, the singing (and dancing if coed) began. Throughout the whole affair, pitchers of beer were brought out often.

There is also a form of the beefsteak fundraiser that has been taking place in New Jersey since 1938. These were thrown in honor of returning soldiers from World War II and are still held today, mostly by local unions. The New Jersey beefsteak differs a lot from both of New York City’s East and West Side schools. Their menu was just sliced steak dipped in butter served on white bread and french fries. Also, the diners at these events did not eat the bread, but stacked it in front of their plates to count how many slices they ate. At the end whoever ate the most would usually receive a prize. Today, the practice has changed little, and if fact is still for the most part run by the same family of butchers, the Nightingales of Clifton, New Jersey.  Though they now dip their steak in margarine instead of butter, fry their fries in vegetable oil instead of fat, have salad, pickle trays, and ice cream options, and switched from sandwich bread to italian bread, they feel the atmosphere has stayed almost the same as it was nearly eight decades ago.

-Heather Clark

Sources:. Joseph Mitchell, “All You Can Hold for Five Bucks,” The New Yorker, 15 April 1939;  Joseph Mitchell, Up in the Old Hotel, (Vintage, Revised Edition 1993) 291-302; 3. Joseph Mitchell. “All You Can Hold for Five Bucks.” The New Yorker, April 15 1939; Paul Lukas, “Gluttonous Rites Survive Without Silverware.” The New York Times, January 30 2008.

Heather Clark