Beefsteak: It's a Vibe not a Tomato
I fear I'm becoming a little too “Brucie” with my non-New Jersey audience. I imagine my frequent admiration of the Garden State might be a bit much, but what can I say, I love Taylor Ham and hot summer nights at the Jersey Shore a whoa, whoa, whoa! (Sung with Springsteen effect). That’s why it’s surprising that I only just recently experienced my first Beefsteak, not that big fat tomato I eat in August. I'm talking about the North Jersey culinary phenomena where slices of all-you-can-eat beef tenderloin are served on top of buttered pieces of bread to an audience of hungry beer drinkers eager to out eat their neighbor.
Beefsteak's a Sausage Party
A Beefsteak, short for Beefsteak dinner or banquet has been around since the mid nineteenth century in the US and even longer in Europe. Originally it was an excuse for a bunch of dudes to stand around a table, eat endless pieces of meat, guzzle beer and practice their secret handshakes. It was a pretty crude affair at first and by crude, I mean awesome. There were no plates, napkins or silverware and it was customary to wipe your greasy hands on your pants when you finished eating, all without any women around. In fact, it wasn't until the 1920's when females were first permitted to attend these social gatherings. Thanks a lot Suffrage Movement! 😊I kid, I kid.
Seriously, I was kidding. Women classed up the joint. Not only did a sit-down dinner with plates and flatware become standard, but the menu was expanded to include tossed salads and French fries. And an entertainment show, usually singing or comedy, was added at the end of the night making Beefsteaks the perfect vehicle for political fundraisers. In addition, many civic organizations like the Cranford Junior Chamber aka Jaycees (that's their steak) and the Elks Lodge hold annual fundraisers to raise money for their charitable causes.
The First Rule of Beefsteaks
You don't talk about Beefsteaks. Wait, that's not right. The first rule of Beefsteak is you don't eat the bread. I ate the bread! It's not because it's not good. The medium rare au jus dripping onto the crusty, buttered baguette is delicious. But no matter how tasty the bread, you don't eat it. Nowadays it has become a custom to stack your bread. Kinda like a pissing contest to be honest. It quickly begins to feel more like a beer hall in Munich then a rented room in suburban New Jersey. There's a palpable energy as each table of diners join forces. Their goal, to make stacks of bread as high and creatively as possible. The more pitchers of beer are poured, the less hunger actually matters. By the end of dinner, the steak is being gobbled down just for more pieces of the tower. Part time waiters, employed for the night by caterers who specialize in Beefsteaks, become skilled jugglers as hands reach across the aisle stealing anything that gets passed out. Cat calls like "Hey what about us?" and "yo, you just hit that table" drown out the opening act as final additions are added to the carbohydrate skyscraper. But as competitive as it gets, it really is all about fun.
Throughout the country, Beefsteak's popularity declined during the late twentieth century, but in the North Jersey counties of Bergen, Essex, Passaic and parts of Morris they continue to thrive to this day. If you are like me and grew up in a part of Jersey where a beefsteak was just a tomato or live out of state, don't wait any longer. Do yourself a favor. Cross a bridge, pay a toll or take whatever Interstate, Turnpike or Parkway you need to and get prepared for a truly unique dining experience. And support a local charity in the process. It's a fun time and I guarantee you won't leave hungry.