Literary Hub

Why Are American Men So Obsessed with Steak?

beef

There’s an old army joke about steak. A young captain, like all ambitious men, wants a porterhouse steak. But his butcher is all out. Apparently, “all the Porterhouse goes to Colonel so-and-so. The Sirloin is reserved for Lieutenant Colonel this-or-that, all but the first cut; that goes to Major Somebody-or-other.” All that is left for the captain is a round steak, the staple of the working poor. The young officer complains, “I’ve been buying beefsteak by rank all my life and I am tired of it.”

The democratization of beef sparked new debates about the meaning of beef consumption. Heightened expectations of quality and lower prices, for instance, sparked public conversations about the relationship between gender and food preparation. Elites began studying working-class eating habits. Union leaders celebrated beef consumption as a tangible marker of the labor movement’s success. The hapless captain above began to wonder when rank and meat consumption would uncouple. Though in many ways eating is fundamentally about taste, one’s dietary choices were always inseparable from broader questions of race, class, gender, and hierarchy.

In the United States, the story of beef and hierarchy really takes shape with the rise of the porterhouse steak. As with all good food legends, the porterhouse’s birth story is a mixture of myth, cliché, and truth. Martin Morrison, the owner of a ship pilot’s bar in the early 19th century, was short of meat, and decided to repurpose the cut at the end of the sirloin, then primarily used for roasting, to provide a steak. It took off. According to the story, Morrison’s butcher eventually grew tired of ordering “cut steaks for the porter-house,” and eventually dubbed the cut “porterhouse steak.” Soon it was famous on both sides of the Atlantic.

When it came to beef, English culinary traditions loomed large. The sirloin was the most famous of all, with centuries of anecdotes about kings who loved a once-obscure cut of meat so much that they dubbed it Sir Loin. Young Englishmen attended “beefsteaks,” ritualized dinners in which they consumed disgusting quantities of meat, and the rallying cry “beef and liberty” had its origins in 17th-century England. There were no better known cooks of roast beef than the English. With the porterhouse, American beef eaters forged a new culinary identity that was only validated once the cut became popular across the Atlantic.

With regard to food, women were caught in a condescending trap: expected to purchase and prepare beef as well as mocked for being incapable of doing so.

Though women were expected to purchase and prepare meat for home consumption, beef was nevertheless a man’s domain, as evident in the variety of stories mocking women’s purchases, cooking, and even dietary choices. In “The Masculine Way,” a man instructs a woman buying beef. He boasts that “a man can buy and sell a cargo of wheat while a woman is ordering a pound of steak,” and explains that she “ought to hear me give an order for meat, and profit thereby.” Elsewhere, a doctor chastises a woman for her “absurd” breakfast choices. He condemns new foods like “oatmeal . . . though it is said to be healthful, it has caused more dyspepsia than all the candy, pastry, and hot rolls ever made.” Rather, “the best breakfast in the world for an ordinary healthy person is a steak or a chop, with good coffee, hot rolls, and eggs.” With regard to food, women were caught in a condescending trap: expected to purchase and prepare beef as well as mocked for being incapable of doing so.

A barrage of articles attacked women’s inability to cook a good steak. A New York Herald article, reprinted in the Philadelphia Inquirer and elsewhere, wondered “that while there are plenty of men, professional and amateur, who can cook a beefsteak, it is an accomplishment which can be claimed by but a few women.” Apparently, the secret to a good beefsteak was the butcher, and “women have no taste for butchery and the science evolved from blood.” Women were nevertheless expected to provide high-quality meat. In “Beefsteak as a Home Breaker,” a widow laments that “a man may be a cherub about everything else; but I never knew one who didn’t row about the steak.” She observed that this is rooted in elevated expectations, for “taking into account the limited part of a beef’s anatomy that is adapted to a Porterhouse, it is mathematically impossible that every man in the country should have the best cut of steak every day.” There was a good deal of truth in the observation, though the widow also noted that her deceased husband “always lost his temper over it, and said he didn’t care what other men had, he wouldn’t chew sole leather and I must change my butcher at once.” The rise of dressed beef was changing expectations.

By the day’s thinking, if beef was for men, the best beef was for educated white men. In the late 1860s, Dr. George Miller Beard, better known for his study of neurasthenia, penned a lengthy analysis of “the diet of brain workers,” that combined social Darwinism (thoughts on the “barbarous races” are sprinkled liberally), quack nutritional analysis (fish is “pre-eminently adapted to nourish the brain”), and rambling monologue (“restaurants are an abomination”). The essay, first published in a self-help magazine called Hours at Home, placed food at the center of its racial theories, noting that “race, climate, and diet are the chief agencies which give character and development to a people.” Addressing the world’s “brain workers,” the piece is an extended refutation of the idea that “brain-workers—especially literary men—needed less food and less sleep than those who handle the shovel and spade.”

Following a vigorous defense of the idea that “even the most secluded book-worm” has greater dietary needs than “the uneducated and laboring classes,” the author enters into an argument about the dietary needs of various historical civilizations. Apparently “the ruling people of the world, who have from time to time shaped the destiny of humanity, have always, so far as can be ascertained, been liberal feeders.” He contrasts the diets of the powerful English and Germans with those of the Italians and Spaniards, whose “brains are less active and original.” The author is even more dismissive of “the rice-eating Hindoos” and other non-Northern European people and diets. Following a dig at the Irish, the author wonders “what have the natives of South America, the savages of Africa, the stupid Greenlander, the peasantry of Europe, all combined, done for civilization, in comparison with any single beef-eating class of Europe?” The essay oscillates between a discussion of classes and occupations and the discussion of race or nationality.

The emphasis on the relationship between diet and social status would inform attitudes about food and class in the 20th century.

As may be clear by now, Beard believed that meat is the key, for “experience tells us that the diet of brain-workers should consist largely of meat, with, of course, an agreeable variety of fruits and cereals.” Fresh meat is to be preferred, since “it contains those substances that are best adapted to feed the brain.” While recognizing the appeal of a fish diet, the author dissects several defenses of fish before concluding that “civilization is very little more indebted to fish-eaters than to vegetarians.”

A variety of newspapers and periodicals published excerpts of the essay with added editorial comments. Mostly supportive, republishers recapitulated the author’s central conclusions. However, the Manufacturers’ and Farmers’ Journal was skeptical, attacking the author’s evidence as limited and impressionistic, before concluding that “we are unable to see the truth of the argument.” Read by the laboring classes, the journal resented the author’s contempt for those who do “muscular labor.”

Discussions about diet often started with the assumption that a beef-heavy diet was essential to success. An 1887 article in the Kansas City Star and republished elsewhere mentioned several “brainworkers”—Goethe, Johnson, and Wordsworth—who were “tremendous feeders,” and provided a list of “best foods,” at the top of which was beef. This list could be compared with a much later article criticizing thinkers like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson who had tried vegetarianism and failed. Tolstoy had become vegetarian late in life, but apparently his greatest works were behind him

This kind of social Darwinian thinking about food reflected the singular importance of meat, and particularly beef, to 19th-century consumers. Its importance ensured abundant demand for beef and explained why Americans rich and poor wanted ever-larger steaks at ever-lower prices. Further, the emphasis on the relationship between diet and social status would inform attitudes about food and class in the 20th century. Although few thought about diet in these crude terms in the 20th century, the general belief that certain people have less need for certain kinds of food is evident even today in the simultaneous aestheticization of elite food and obsession with reforming the eating habits of the poor.

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Red Meat Republic by Joshua Specht is out now.

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