Monday, November 07, 2011

The Truth about Carpetbag Steak.

A small comment in an article I read recently stated that ‘Carpetbag Steak’ was an Australian invention, and suggested that indeed it was a national dish. I have lived in this country since the mid 1960’s, and I am here to tell you – as both a consumer and food history enthusiast – that this is a ridiculous myth.  The concept of a steak stuffed with oysters and grilled (or ‘broiled’, if you prefer that term) – did appear on menus of Australian restaurants of the more expensive kind, in decades past, but I cannot remember last time I it listed on any menu, anywhere (which is a surely a sign that it is due for revival.)

I hasten to add that the simple combination of beef and oysters is quite old, oysters once upon a time being so cheap that they were a useful way of bulking out expensive meat dishes. The best example of this is the old-fashioned ‘steak and oyster pie’, which only became ‘steak and kidney pie’ in the latter half of the nineteenth century, when oysters became dearer than kidneys.

The OED is seriously deficient on the topic of carpetbag steak, giving the first mention in English as late as 1958, in The Times. Even worse – the second supporting quotation, from 1969, also from The Times says ‘Many ‘foreign’ dishes are really British. Like Australian ‘carpetbag steak’—rare fillet stuffed with oysters.’  Many other references suggest the invention of this dish was in the mid-twentieth century, the favoured ‘inventor’ being Louis Diat, whose book Cooking a la Ritz, published in 1941, included the following recipe:

Carpet-Bag Steak.
Have the butcher cut steak from the sirloin 1 1/2 to 2 inches thick, and then cut through the center to make a pocket. Stuff this pocket with raw oysters, seasoned with salt an pepper. Then sew the edges of pocket together. Broil about fifteen minutes on each side. Serve with any desired potatoes."
There are earlier printed recipes for carpet-bag or carpetbagger steak, or for the same dish without the name. A well-known Australian cookery teacher and cook book writer was Amy Shauer. One of her many books, published in 1909 included the following recipe:

Steak and Oystr Filling
Choose a good tender steak, and have it cut about 2 inches thick. Split it through, and fill in between with raw oysters, lightly seasoned with cayenne and a few drops of lemon juice. Sew up the steak, and grill carefully for 20 minutes to 1/2 an hour. Rubbing the steak over with oiled butter or salad oil prevents the juice escaping, and ensures it coming to table a rich brown outside and tender and juicy inside."
The Schauer Cookery Book, (1909) Mis A and Miss M Schauer

Published recipes are late records of dishes that have already been in existence for some time. But how long is this in the case of carpetbag steak? There is an intriguing snippet, in a column of small snippets, in the Logansport Pharos [Logansport, Indiana], of Thursday Evening, July 23, 1891 which says ‘“Carpetbag steak,” a rare delicacy now, is slit and stuffed with oysters and broiled. – Hotel Mail.’ This sentence, if I read the nuances correctly, suggests that carpetbag steak had already had its hey-day by the end of 1891. The snippet, and the absence of references in Australia or elsewhere around this date also strongly suggests that the dish is an American invention.

Surely there must be other, earlier, references to a dish that was apparently already popular in 1891? See what you can find, my friends, and lets try to put a date and ethnicity on this early ‘Beef and Reef’ dish.

Quotation for the Day.

“Eat slowly; only men in rags
and gluttons old in sin
Mistake themselves for carpet-bags
And tumble victuals in.”
            Walter Alexander Raleigh (1861-1922), Stans Puer ad Mensam.


Pete said...

Since the term carpetbag itself entered the language 1820-30, and carpetbagger in 1865, that should limit the name research, especially if the recipe was already falling out of favor by 1891. Carpetbaggers in the US were interlopers known for their shoddy tricks on the locals; perhaps naming a stuffed steak after them was a way of pointing to the (original) cheapness of the filling? I suspect it would be easier to find the recipe in cookbooks from the American South than the American North, since "carpetbagger" is really a pejorative.

sesanner said...

Theorizing on the basis of nearly forgotten Welsh family history.

The carpetbag fabric itself . . . remembering my grandmother's travel bag from the late 1880's . . . could certainly be of rich, elegant design. Rugs from Persia, even from less exotic sources, were surely prized. Common sources of household pride, one might surmise, among the classes that could afford them.

In their early use, were carpetbags necessarily born into disrepute? My grandmother would have denied that rather brusquely.

Perhaps steak and oysters were similarly esteemed at some time?

From another branch of the family, oysters appeared on the table in a cornbread stuffing served with turkey. Its recipe came North with an inlaw from Kentucky, U.S.

(It is reassuring to read the staid "OED is seriously deficient" having also recently read that verdict of our newfangled Wikipedia.)


firefoodie said...

That made interesting reading. The whole concept of 'surf and turf' I find a bit weird in any case, but I like the evolution from oysters to kidneys in the steak and kid pie. How times have changed.

Pete said...

Hi, Sesanner -- No, ma'am, carpetbags themselves were not initially held in disesteem. It was the unscrupulous actions of the Northern interlopers who arrived carrying them that gave them their bad reputation in the South. I grew up with oyster stuffing for fowl, also, and still prefer it although we use wheat bread (my father's family came from Kentucky and southern Illinois).

The Old Foodie said...

Hi All.I was briefly concerned there about the Civil war erupting again ....
I wonder if there is a metaphor here - if it turns out likely to be a Southern dish, does the concept of oysters inside a steak 'mean' anything?

The Old Foodie said...

I mean, does it mean something more specific? stuffed steak in itself was not uncommon, so I think maybe it indicates something specific, not just cheapness. Maybe an oyster difference between north and south?
I will keep looking folks, watch out for chapter 2!

Dee said...

I showed this post to my grandfather earlier this week, and he got a kick out of it. We chatted about it afterwards over a few beers.

My grandfather, who owned a cattle ranch here in Florida until the 1970's, said that beef really wasn't a big part of the Southern diet until after WWII.

He said that most of the beef that was produced down (or up) here in the Southern US was either shipped to the stockyards up north, sold to the Brits, or was purchased by the Federal government to feed the US Army and Navy bases which still dot across the Southern US after our civil war.

So beef was fairly scarce, which drove up the price, locally.

Also from the end of the US Civil War until the late 1940's, and some areas even as late as the 1980's, many regions across the Southern US were economically depressed due to the postwar looting which was carried out by the carpetbaggers during the Reconstruction. The regional depression was further exacerbated by 50 to 60 years of corrupt and inept local governance.

So until the late 1940's, many Southerners who lived within these depressed regions simply couldn't afford beef.

As for oysters; unless you lived along the coastal regions of the US South, up until the 1940's; you needed serious money to ship a crate or two of oysters inland, and keep them cold enough to safely eat. So stuffing oysters inside of a cut of steak was considered an extravagance by most Southerners of the time.

So my grandfather said that a menu featuring "Carpetbagger Steaks" would have been a meal which only some rich damyankee, who liked to rub your nose in their ill-gotten money, could ever hope to afford...

The Old Foodie said...

Marvellous, Dee! May thanks to you and you grandfather for a lovely contribution to the story.

Anonymous said...

South Australian Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1889 - 1895)
Saturday 6 December 1890
Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton, Qld. : 1878 - 1954)
Monday 4 May 1891

Rump steak with brown oyster sauce is a standard English dish.
The following recipe is recommended :-
Cut a steak at least two inches thick, split through and fill it with a layer of raw oysters lightly seasoned with cayenne and lemon-juice.
Sew up the steak and boil carefully for twenty minutes or half an hour, according to its thickness.
No sauce is required with this mode of preparing.
Rubbing a steak over with salad oil before cooking is the easiest and best method of preserving the juices of the meal and ensuring its appearance at table a deep, rich brown outside mid red inside, tender and succulent.
All savoury butters are good served with steak. Horseradish butter is perhaps the newest.

Heather Arndt Anderson said...

There's an interesting version of this dish in the 1912 Neighborhood Cook Book, published by the Council of Jewish Women in Portland, OR. This was only the second Jewish cookbook to be published after the reform of Judaism, so there are a great many non-kosher recipes. Their version is called "Saddle Bags a la Rothchild," which nods both to the fact that saddlebags are more useful out West, but also to the wealth of the person eating it; it's named for Fred Rothchild, who, besides owning a liquor distribution in Portland (and a downtown building to house it), was the first vice-president of the Bankers and Lumbermen's Bank in 1907.

Here's the recipe (on p 67):
Saddle Bags a la Rothchild
Slit a pocket in a large tenderloin steak, fill it with oysters (small ones) which have been seasoned with salt, pepper and catsup or a little Worcestershire sauce; broil or bake the steak, adding butter and more seasoning.