[Sca-cooks] Interesting, OOP NY Times Food History article...

Phil Troy / G. Tacitus Adamantius adamantius1 at verizon.net
Thu Jan 31 02:11:33 PST 2008

> January 30, 2008
> Gluttonous Rite Survives Without Silverware
> IT was Friday evening at V.F.W. Post 4591 in Hasbrouck Heights,  
> N.J., and the scene was a vegetarian’s nightmare.
> About 350 men, seated shoulder to shoulder at long tables, were  
> devouring slices of beef tenderloin and washing them down with  
> pitchers of beer. As waiters brought trays of meat, the guests  
> reached over and harvested the pink slices with their bare hands,  
> popping them down the hatch.
> Each slice was perched on a round of Italian bread, but most of the  
> men ate only the meat and stacked the bread slices in front of them,  
> tallying their gluttony like poker players amassing chips. Laughter  
> and uproarious conversation were in abundance; subtlety was not.
> As anyone in northern New Jersey could tell you, this was a  
> beefsteak. The term refers not to a cut of meat but to a raucous all- 
> you-can-eat-and-drink banquet with a rich history in Bergen and  
> Passaic Counties.
> The events, which typically attract crowds of 150 or more, with a  
> ticket price of about $40, are popular as political meet-and-greets,  
> annual dinners for businesses and civic groups, and charity  
> fundraisers. Caterers said they put on about 1,000 of them in the  
> region last year.
> “Once you start going to beefsteaks, it’s an addiction,” said Al  
> Baker, a Hasbrouck Heights policeman who had organized the evening’s  
> festivities to benefit the Special Olympics. “You’ve got the tender  
> beef, butter, salt, French fries, beer — all your major food groups.  
> But it’s very unique to North Jersey. I go to other places and  
> nobody’s heard of it.”
> That would have come as a surprise to many New Yorkers of  
> generations past. Back in the days before cholesterol testing,  
> beefsteaks — boisterous mass feeds featuring unlimited servings of  
> steak, lamb chops, bacon-wrapped lamb kidneys, crabmeat, shrimp and  
> beer, all consumed without such niceties as silverware, napkins or  
> women — held sway in New York for the better part of a century.
> The ritual was documented by the writer Joseph Mitchell for the New  
> Yorker magazine in his 1939 article “All You Can Hold for Five  
> Bucks.” As Mr. Mitchell told it, the beefsteak came into being in  
> the mid-1800s, became popular as a political fund-raiser and vote- 
> buyer, and began a slow decline when women started taking part after  
> being granted suffrage in 1920.
> Mr. Mitchell’s essay has become something of a Rosetta stone among  
> fans of old New York and carnivorous foodies, prompting considerable  
> hand-wringing among those born too late for the beefsteak era.
> As it turns out, they’ve been living through it all along. Across  
> the Hudson River, just 15 miles from Midtown Manhattan, the Bergen- 
> Passaic beefsteak scene has been continuing without New York  
> attention for the past 70 years. It amounts to a remarkable two-way  
> cultural disconnect: The New Jersey events are organized by, catered  
> by and attended by people who are unaware of the beefsteak’s New  
> York pedigree, just as New York’s nostalgic beefsteak historians  
> have been oblivious to the New Jersey beefsteaks taking place right  
> under their noses.
> It’s not clear how the beefsteak migrated westward from New York, or  
> how it went from many meat courses to just beef tenderloin (which,  
> according to Mr. Mitchell’s account, may be closer in spirit to the  
> beefsteak’s origins). But there appears to be broad consensus on the  
> genesis of the New Jersey version: In 1938 — a year before Mr.  
> Mitchell’s manifesto — a Clifton butcher and grocer named Garret  
> Nightingale, known as Hap, began catering parties with a set formula.
> He grilled tenderloins (the muscle used for filet mignon) over  
> charcoal, sliced them, dipped the slices in melted butter, served  
> them on slices of white sandwich bread, added French fries on the  
> side, and let everyone eat as much as they wanted. This he called a  
> beefsteak. Within a decade, it had become an entrenched local  
> phenomenon.
> Hap Nightingale died in 1982. By that time he had passed the  
> business on to his son, Bob, who turned it over to his son, Rob, in  
> 1995. The second- and third-generation Nightingales continue to run  
> the operation today out of an unassuming Clifton house where Bob  
> Nightingale was raised and still lives.
> Their business office is the house’s cramped basement, and the  
> tenderloins are grilled over hardwood charcoal in the driveway  
> before being taken to the beefsteak venues. From this unlikely  
> command center, the Nightingales catered over 600 beefsteaks last  
> year, going through 88,000 pounds of tenderloin in the process.
> “I don’t know where my father got the idea, frankly,” Bob  
> Nightingale said one recent afternoon. “But he had good timing. As  
> men came back from World War II, the community would throw them a  
> beefsteak. Lots of them went to work in the local rubber and textile  
> plants, so the unions grew, and they started throwing beefsteaks  
> too. That’s how it spread.”
> Along the way, some protocols developed, most notably the habit of  
> stacking the accumulated bread slices instead of eating them. This  
> routine saves valuable stomach capacity for more beef while  
> simultaneously serving as an informal scorekeeping system to  
> determine how many beef slices the person has consumed. At some  
> beefsteaks, the person with the biggest stack wins a prize.
> The Nightingales have made only a few changes since the early days:  
> They now dip the meat slices in margarine instead of butter (“Butter  
> can burn more easily,” Rob Nightingale explained). The sandwich  
> bread has been replaced by Italian bread (it holds up better to the  
> drippings, although some attendees complain that it’s harder to  
> stack). Relish trays have been replaced with bowls of tossed salad,  
> and the French fries, which were once cooked in rendered fat  
> trimmings from the tenderloins, are now fried in vegetable oil.  
> Otherwise, the Nightingales pretty much stick to the script  
> established by their founder.
> “Some people — usually women — try to dress it up, make it more than  
> it is,” Rob Nightingale said. “They’ll want a pasta course, or  
> antipasto. We’ll do it if that’s what they want — you know, business  
> is business — but it’s not the same.”
> Ah, yes, women. Their attendance at beefsteaks has been  
> controversial for some since the 1920s, and that gender gap  
> apparently persists today.
> “A man isn’t inclined to eat as much if his wife or girlfriend is  
> watching,” Rob Nightingale explained. “After their 15th or 18th  
> slice, she kind of gives him the look and makes him stop.” (Mr.  
> Mitchell put it more succinctly: “Women do not esteem a glutton.”)
> Although the recent Hasbrouck Heights event — put on by a local  
> police group — was stag, the Nightingales said about 75 percent of  
> their beefsteaks are now co-ed.
> The Nightingales’ principal competitor is Baskinger’s, a Clifton  
> delicatessen located just down the road from the Nightingale  
> compound. Although both companies have their fierce loyalists, the  
> distinctions appear minimal. The primary differences are that  
> Baskinger’s cooks its tenderloins on an indoor gas grill (they used  
> to grill them outside, until a neighbor complained) and dips the  
> slices in butter, not margarine.
> Baskinger’s got into the beefsteak business in 1973 and is run today  
> by Joe Argieri, who joined the company in 1983. “At that time, I was  
> in my 20s and had no idea what a beefsteak was,” he said. “I grew up  
> in Nutley — the only beefsteak I knew about was beefsteak tomatoes.”
> To put that statement in perspective, consider that Nutley is only  
> six miles south of Clifton. But it’s over the county line, in Essex,  
> which in beefsteak terms means it may as well be in Kansas.
> “Whenever I travel, whether down south or wherever, nobody’s ever  
> heard of the beefsteak,” Mr. Argieri said. By “down south,” he meant  
> southern New Jersey.
> This “only in New Jersey” sentiment, which was echoed by dozens of  
> Bergen and Passaic residents, highlights an enduring mystery: Why  
> did the beefsteak disappear from New York just as it was gaining a  
> foothold in New Jersey?
> A partial answer lies in the declining civic role of several crucial  
> New York beefsteak sponsors, including the Tammany political  
> machine, labor unions and fraternal organizations.
> But Waldy Malouf, the chef and a co-owner of the Manhattan  
> restaurant Beacon, thinks the answer runs deeper than that. In 2001  
> he started holding an annual beefsteak, patterned after the ones  
> described by Mr. Mitchell (this year’s edition is next Tuesday, Feb.  
> 5).
> It’s a grand event, with roasted whole sirloin and roasted potatoes  
> (as well as lamb chops, bacon-wrapped kidneys and crabmeat), rather  
> than the grilled tenderloin and French fries of New Jersey. But it’s  
> essentially a nostalgic party, a novelty, while the New Jersey  
> beefsteaks are vibrant staples of the local culture.
> “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,” Mr. Malouf said. “And as Manhattan eventually got  
> more sophisticated and less blue-collar, the beefsteak may have  
> become frowned upon here.”
> Another factor that probably contributed to the New York beefsteak’s  
> demise: cost. While the New Jersey kind calls for only one cut of  
> beef, New York beefsteaks entailed multiple meat courses, which  
> ratcheted up the price.
> That theory is bolstered by Howard Itzkowitz, a retired butcher who  
> was an owner of the William Wertheimer & Son meat market on First  
> Avenue and 19th Street from 1955 through 1978. This shop was  
> described in Mr. Mitchell’s treatise as “the headquarters of the  
> East Side school” of beefsteak. The shop is no longer in business,  
> but Mr. Itzkowitz, now 80 years old and living in Palm Harbor, Fla.,  
> is a living link to the New York beefsteak era.
> “It was a good time, but it got too expensive for people,” he  
> recalled. “By the late ’60s, it was just about over.” Asked if he  
> realized that beefsteaks had also been taking place in New Jersey at  
> the time, he said: “No, we always thought it was a New York thing. I  
> never knew they were doing it anywhere else.”
> If only he could have witnessed the scene in Hasbrouck Heights a few  
> nights earlier. One of the more enthusiastic participants that  
> evening was Tommy Mason, 75, a retired real estate appraiser who has  
> been a regular beefsteak attendee since he returned home from the  
> Korean War in 1955.
> “You can’t be courteous at a beefsteak, and you can’t be shy,” he  
> said, demonstrating his point by reaching for another slice of beef.  
> “But it’s all in good fellowship, and nobody gets out of hand. I’ll  
> do it till the day I die.”
> Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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