Last Saturday night, I attended my first Beefsteak in Fair Lawn, New Jersey- a fundraiser for the local ambulance corp organized by the Fair Lawn Rotary Club (it was their 18th annual Beefsteak and Tricky Tray). Four of us traveled from southern Westchester to North Jersey, where we met with the remaining member of our party, who traveled from northern Westchester. We seemed to be the only Beefsteak newbies in the St Leon's Armenian Church hall. The regulars were a really nice bunch, who made us feel right at home and taught us some Beefsteak pointers. This was a family event, not a rowdy crowd of burly, surly longshoremen.
The Beefsteak (please note, the linked site is a PDF) has its origins in late 19th Century New York City social and political groups (political machines, unions, fraternal orders...) which would sponsor great, rowdy feasts to raise funds and court supporters. These events disappeared from the New York social scene, although a revival has been underway in recent years.
The Beefsteak never went out of fashion in New Jersey's Bergen County, although the bewildering variety of meats in the late 19th and early 20th Century beefsteaks has given way to beef tenderloin, served on sliced rounds of Italian bread (some buttered, some left as is). This particular Beefsteak was catered by Giresi's of Lodi, NJ. As well as the beefsteak, a raffle known as a Tricky Tray.
Before the meal, the Tricky Tray started- the various raffle prizes were set up on long tables, each prize accompanied by a two-quart deli container, into which one would place a raffle ticket. The meal began with a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, led by the son of one of the Rotarians, followed by a verse of God Bless America (singing being a common feature of the Beefsteak)- then the feast began in earnest.
At the onset, a small fruit platter and a vegetable platter were set on the table. A pasta course (ziti with marinara sauce) followed, but this was merely a preliminary. Once the pasta course was cleared, the beef tenderloin arrived, and arrived, and arrived. Shiny silver plates, with neatly arranged open-faced sandwiches... at first, everyone at the table took two, then passed the tray along. This pace continued for the first four or five trays, then the less ravenous would slacken for a spell. Before serving a tray, the waitress would ask the table if they preferred sandwiches with or without buttered bread (it was about a 50/50 split over the course of the evening). These little sandwiches were accompanied by copious amounts of waffle-cut fries, and a continuous stream of beer and wine. Being a newbie (and also, I must confess, an extremely frugal person -read cheap- who'd never leave something uneaten on my plate), I consumed the bread, while the regulars would, in traditional fashion, stack the rounds of bread into towers in the center of the table.
This example is crowned with a pickled hot pepper:
The undisputed champion of the night, though, was this young man, who fashioned an architectural marvel out of his table's rounds of bread:
The steak onslaught was followed by a perfunctory dessert- a swiss-roll styled chocolate cake with ice-cream filling (too bad it wasn't a thinly-pounded flank steak with a hamburger filling), and a most welcome cup of coffee. Dinner was followed by the raffle results- I am happy to say that my friend Joe won a huge basket of beach toys that his son will go nuts for. The best gift won by the table, however, was this wonderful item:
Yes, it is what you think it is.
After the meal, we all staggered out of the church hall, filled to the gills. I have to say that, having read the old New Yorker article, I had half-expected a greasier, grittier event... one in which wives and girlfriends would silently weep, or sit stone-faced as their husbands or boyfriends shoveled great big handfuls of dripping chops and steaks into their mouths without pause, but those Tammany Hall days are no more. In fact, there were even napkins on the table! So, fear not, you can take your significant other to the event with no reservations.
Needless to say, I did the vegetarian thing the next day, and have laid off the red meat so far this week.
Note: I ran out of space in my inbox, so I was unable to send the picture of the actual sandwiches to my e-mail account in time for this post. I will put up a picture of these little beauties as soon as possible.