Saturday, 5 February 2011

The Sublime Society of Beef Steaks

["Beef and liberty" -- the gridiron symbol and motto of the
Sublime Society of Beef Steaks, founded in 1735]

He that of Honour, Wit and Mirth partakes,
May be a fit Companion o'er Beef-steaks.
~ Dr. William King, "Art of Cookery" (1708)
In our contemporary world, certain types of food and food preparation are viewed as more essentially "manly" than others. These tend to involve the grill and the barbecue, and a great deal of meat -- the juicier, rarer, and thicker the cut, the better. Naturally, the Idle Historian doesn't hold to such gendered notions; taste and eating are there for our own choosing, and are not to be dictated to us on such random and externally imposed criteria. Yet this equation of masculinity, even patriotism, and beef is certainly not new. In the Anglo-Saxon world, the notion owes much to 18th century England and the celebration of the "John Bull" hearty beef steak as the antithesis of imported French culinary tastes, seen by some as so much poncy foreign nonsense.

The advent of the Beef Steak club as a concept was both patriotic and specifically political in orientation. It extolled Whiggish values of progress and material prosperity enshrined in the motto of the Sublime Society of Beef Steaks, founded in 1735: "Beef and liberty." The first beefsteak society was founded in 1705, consisting of artists and politicians. It was short-lived, but no doubt inspired its Sublime successor, founded by theatrical performer John Rich. In addition, other beef steak clubs evolved around similar ideals, some of which were more radical than others in nature. In the 1760s one such club was founded in support of the radical and libertine MP John Wilkes, who, by turns, was prosecuted for obscenity and libel, and was forced to flee to France. His cries for "liberty," including freedom of the press, fit well with the "beef and liberty" outlook of his fellow eaters.

This excellent website details some of the history of the Sublime Society, including their love of wit, jokes, and excellent conversation. The aims of the Society were aesthetic as well as nationalistic, attracting fine artistic minds. This rather fascinating and amusing history of the club from 1871 (reproduced whole by, details the precise and specific regulations of its proceedings. Originally the Society was restricted to 24 members (no guests allowed), with a President's chair, toasts, oaths, songs, and an official "anthem." It was a production echoing and also satirizing the proceedings of the court or Parliament, indicating how the Society was a performance as well as a literal feast -- only fitting given its strong theatrical membership. Historian Venetia Murray quotes a food historian of the day on the anti-French element of the Society: " 'but what alas! are the weak endeavours of a few to oppose the daily inroads of fricassée and soupe-maigres?' The drink was equally conservative: no French wines or champagnes, but arrack punch out of pint pots -- and a great deal of it." And of one particularly eager participant (quoting a contemporary source):
... no one surpassed His Grace of Norfolk: two or three steaks, fragrant from the gridiron, vanished, and when his labours were thought to be over, he might be seen rubbing a clean plate with a shalot for the reception of another. A pause of ten minutes ensued, and His Grace rested upon his knife and fork: he was tarrying for a steak from the middle of the rump of beef, where lurks a fifth essence, the perfect ideal of tenderness and flavour. He would often eat between three and four pounds of beef-steak... [Venetia Murray, An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England, p. 167-9]
The Duke once consumed no less than fifteen such steaks during a single sitting and also lived quite healthily into his seventieth year in the process. This may be fortuitous happenstance for the Duke, or perhaps might endorse a bit of devil-may-care contrarian eating: the Idle Historian shall let the reader decide.

"Extreme eating" is still with us, as is The Sublime Society of Beef Steaks, which was re-formed in 1966, and which has been indirectly endorsed by no less than Her Majesty the Queen. It includes some descendants of original members and preserves the original customs, including the outfits worn at dinners. It may be seen as a joke, an irrelevant relic of the past, or even a symbol of English snobbery and an exclusionary club-ish nature. But it is certainly unique, and a reminder of how the food we put on our plates is more than fad, nutrition, or a source of sustenance. It is also political, cultural, and sometimes a little bit of theatrics as well.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 
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