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Prime Steaks

John Mariani
From the Print Edition:
maduro issue, Winter 93/94

If you want to know how seriously Americans take their steak, rent a video of John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which outlaw Valance, played by a reptilian Lee Marvin, causes lawyer-turned-waiter Jimmy Stewart to drop John Wayne's steak on the floor of a Western eating house.

Wayne, having told the cook to "burn me a good thick one," is infuriated and snarls: "That's my steak, Valance. Pick it up." Marvin barks at Stewart: "You heard him. Pick it up." Wayne puts his hand near his six-shooter and repeats, "I said you, Liberty. You pick it up." Just as the two gunslingers are about to draw on each other, Stewart retrieves the steak and shouts, "There! What's the matter? Is everybody in this country kill crazy? You woulda killed him for one measly steak!"

And at the risk of offending Mom, apple-pie makers of America and the girl next door, what did Hollywood GIs like William Bendix and Richard Conte really dream about in those foxholes? A two-inch T-bone smothered in onions, with a baked potato on the side and a pitcher of cold beer. Beefsteaks are as tied to American machismo as old blues songs like "It Ain't the Meat, It's the Motion."

For most men and many women, a good thick steak represents one of the purest pleasures of gastronomy, but for others it symbolizes unbridled gluttony. Despite all the nutritional "terrorism" of the 1980s, Americans are still consuming prodigious amounts of beef--66.4 pounds per person last year. That's about 16.9 billion pounds annually, with 280 million pounds grilled on Father's Day alone, and another 200 million steaks thrown on the grill when the Fourth of July rolls around.

The beef industry loves to repeat the cliché that, while Americans may be eating about half the beef they did 20 years ago, when a man wants a steak, he wants a good one and is willing to pay handily for it. For this reason, America's most expensive steakhouses, from Peter Luger in Brooklyn to the Grill in Beverly Hills, are doing gangbuster business, and chains like Ruth's Chris, Morton's, and Palm are opening up more and more units every year, each one of them serving highly marbleized, fat-rich U.S. Prime.

With this proliferation, the need to know what you're getting becomes more important than ever, as even a big-league beefeater--the kind of man who thinks nothing of putting away a 16-ounce sirloin, a platter of french fries, a three-inch slice of cheesecake, a bottle of Cabernet, and then smoking a good cigar with a glass of Port--may know little or nothing about the beef he's eating. Even assuming that all the better steakhouses use high-grade meat, the differences in cut, preparation and price vary widely, as does quality itself. Most steakeaters regard good beef as an American birthright and assume there is an endless supply of U.S. Prime, like Ford Fiestas and lawyer jokes.

"I haven't had an empty table in 12 years," says Pat Cetta, who, with his brother Mike, owns Sparks Steak House in New York. It is a sentiment echoed in other New York beef emporiums like Peter Luger, Palm, Smith & Wollensky, Ben Benson's, Gallagher's, and the Old Homestead. This year the Palm chain will expand its current 11 units, Morton's of Chicago will add to its 18, and Ruth's Chris, out of New Orleans, is aiming for 35 or more units before the end of next year, including, like Morton's, a recent move into the big league, New York, in the fall.

Going into the tough New York market is a scary proposition for a steakhouse chain, but it is done for the same reason clothing designers open in Paris, opera singers go to Milan and gamblers to Monte Carlo. Those are the places that establish the standards, set the mold and form the traditions. For while chophouses and beefeaters' clubs existed in 18th-century London, the American steakhouse as we know it is really a phenomenon of the Prohibition era in New York.

True, the Old Homestead in Manhattan opened in 1868, Keens Chop House in 1885, Brooklyn's Gage & Tollner debuted in 1879, and Peter Luger in 1887, but those revered establishments drew more on English and German models. Luger still features only one cut of steak--the sliced porterhouse, a term derived from English taverns serving porter beer and popularized about 1814 as a steak in America by porterhouse proprietor Martin Morrison in New York.

The New York steakhouse--a term still used outside New York to draw customers in the same way ads proclaim "London pub" or "Parisian bistro"--developed along lines drawn at Palm (1926) and Gallagher's (1927), both of which originated as speakeasies during the Noble Experiment of Prohibition. Palm was run by two Italians, John Ganzi and Pio Bozzi, on Second Avenue. (The name was supposed to be "Parma," after the owners' hometown, but a city bureaucrat spelled it wrong on an official document, and so "Palm" it remained.) Gallagher's, on 52nd Street off Broadway, was named after former Ziegfeld-girl-turned-speakeasy-owner, Helen Gallagher. Both places democratically served a little beer, a little hooch and a little beefsteak to everyone from New York's politicians and journalists to Café Society, who sometimes got their pictures or caricatures put up on the walls. Such places had a swagger, a very masculine feel to them and a perception of exclusivity that made everyone want to go there.


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