775 pounds of beef is a thrilling prospect. It’s 12:30 p.m. on a sunny Sunday in Gowanus, and a line of antsy carnivores extends a half block past the entrance of the Bell House. They’ve been promised endless cuts of Pat LaFrieda beef (yes, the meat purveyor behind Shake Shack burgers) and bottomless pitchers of McSorley’s light and dark beer, and their collective anticipation is palpable.
If carnivores had a religious ceremony, this was it.
The beefsteak is more than an opportunity to gorge yourself on beef and beer; it’s a chance to participate in a long-held New York tradition. Joseph Mitchell outlined the history of this rite in his 1939 New Yorker article “All You Can Hold for Five Bucks.” Mitchell details how beefsteaks began as a political fundraising effort at Tammany clubs. Rather than being stuffy and dignified, beefsteaks grew into a testosterone-driven affair where “the air was heavy with the fragrance of meat.” He goes on to describe men eating beef with only their hands, taking pains to illustrate their vigorous pursuit of gluttony and complete lack of restraint, both in appetite and behavior. If carnivores had a religious ceremony, this was it.
Almost 75 years later, the beefsteak is back, seemingly (hopefully?) to stay. Inspired by Mitchell’s raucous illustration of the event, Andrew Dermont and Derek Silverman, two Wesleyan grads with tenderloins in their eyes, revived the practice. Their incarnation would be dubbed the Brooklyn Beefsteak, and though it's steeped in history, it feels very much tailored to the times. Maybe it’s that this type of thing never really loses its appeal. New York Times food scribe Paul Lukas, who has supported the event since its 2009 inception, notes that the event has “a nostalgic echo.”
“It’s changed a lot," says Lukas. "But the spirit is there. You don’t have to slavishly recreate exactly what used to be. You can make it your own, for your own time, and your own place.”
And that’s just what Dermont and Silverman have done. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting setting for the modern day beefsteak revival than the Bell House. The converted warehouse is a warm, welcoming space, with rustic wood and a 25-foot vaulted ceiling. Last Sunday, it became something of a sanctuary, filled with long, beer garden style tables clad with red-and-white checkered tablecloths, adorned with pickles, peanuts, and trio of Sir Kensington sauces awaiting their meaty conduits.
If you were to take a bird's eye view of the hall, you’d see a see of an unruly sea of hungry humans, each wearing a white butcher hat and an apron that serves as a glorified full-body napkin. They’re undulating with the unadulterated joy that can only come from a belly full of beer and beef. A round metal tray with medium rare meat perched on rounds of bread is passed down each table, making its way from hand-to-hand. The meat disappears quickly, being claimed and subsequently devoured within seconds. The bread is re-purposed for bragging rights, each group building a tower with questionable stability, a testament to their appetites more than a stand taken against carbs.
They’re undulating with the unadulterated joy that can only come from a belly full of meat and beer.
Susquehanna Industrial Tool & Die Company (SIT & DIE) occupies the stage, instilling the event with hillbilly, old-timey feel that lends to the humble beginnings its creators took pains to to pay homage to. Beefsteak Betty, the event’s enthusiastic hostess, sporadically comes to the stage. Wearing a cow print skirt and holding cue cards that read “Beef,” “Beer,” and “Fun,” she effortlessly encourages the crowd to shout each word louder, drink each cup's contents faster, and eat with more fervor.
It continues this way for hours, briefly interrupted by an eating contest where participants are blindfolded; one is designated the feeder, and the other is tasked with eating a full tray of the beef, bread and beer optional. Someone nearby notes that the stomach is actually as wide as the ocean, and thus, capable of holding far more than one would think. Those on stage seem to prove this statement's veracity, devouring what's clumsily fed to them with terrifying speed. Here, an amateur eater can feel on par with legends like Joey Chesnut thanks to the overzealous crowd. Everyone is a cheerleader after 10 plastic cups of McSorley's.
"We don’t really consider this a culinary event," Silverman admits.
His partner echoes this idea. “We’re not shooting for the artisanal stars," Dermont says. "We’re just trying to put something together that, when the parts come together, in some way, it equals something greater than the whole.”
As the crowd spills out of the hall, a blur of soiled aprons and wide grins, we'd say he succeeded. The bonding power of eating sans utensils is real.
The Brooklyn Beefsteak will return in 2014. Mark your calendars and whet your appetites accordingly.