GUEST BLOG / By Thomas F. De Voe, author of The Market Assistant, which detailed 1867 menu items/dishes that were sold at markets and restaurants in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia in the 1800s. It was the Eater.com of its day.
Note: The Porterhouse Steak is the king of all steaks, but how long exactly has it sat upon this throne? Like so many other widely recognized dishes, the porterhouse steak has contested origins. Back in the 1800s restaurants and taverns were often called porterhouses, as they served a style of beer called porter. A porter is a type of dark beer that was developed in London, England in the 1700s. Porters are made out of malted barley, and are often brewed through top-fermentation with ale yeast, which means the fermentation occurs near the top of the tank.
Here’s what author De Voe wrote: “…The origin of the name of “porterhouse steaks” took place about the year 1814, in the following manner: Martin Morrison was the proprietor of a long-established and well-kept “porter-house,” located and known at that period at No. 327 Pearl-street (New York), near the long-demolished Walton House” near the Brooklyn Bridge entry.
Morrison’s place proved popular with many of the New York merchant sailors for his prepared hot meals, at any hour, at their call, they being occasionally detained on shipboard until their vessels were safely moored.
The “porter-houses” (bars with restaurants) in those days were not so devoted to tippling, dram-drinking, and the common nests for the loafing, or the manufacturing of politicians and corrupt officials as at the present day, but rather to accommodate the hungry and thirsty travelers, old and young bachelors, seamen, and others who needed a meal after the English custom – “a pot of ale [or porter] and a bite of something.”
Some “porter-houses” prepared a hot meal of one or two dishes, among which was Morrison's, who must have been quite famous for his excellent broiled beefsteaks, which were universally called for at his place. On one occasion (at the above period, 1814), Morrison having had a busy night for his regular menu of steaks, had run out of meat. As fortune would have it a trusty customer, a rough and ready harbor pilot arrived for a late visit.
The man was both hungry and thirsty, having been several hours without food. Not caring for the salt junk aboard the vessel which he had piloted in, he concluded to wait until he got on shore, that he might cast his anchor at Morrison's, where he could enjoy his “hot steak and mug of porter.”
In his honest language of the day the pilot gave his usual order.
Morrison had nothing but his family dinner for the next day, which consisted of a sirloin roasting-piece, of which he offered to cut from if the old pilot would have it. “Yes, my hearty, anything - so long as it is a beefsteak - for I am as empty as a gull!” exclaimed the pilot.
|Older butcher's jargon called above a sirloin roasting piece. Nowadays, the New York Strip and the smaller filet mignon tenderloin makes up the porterhouse steak.|
Morrison cut off a good-sized slice, had it dressed and served, which the pilot ravenously devoured, and turning to the host (who had been expecting a blast from the old tarpaulin, but who, to his astonishment, received the order “Messmate, another steak just like that - do you hear?”
Having finished his steaks and the second mug of porter, the old pilot squared himself towards his host, loudly vociferating, “Look ye here, messmate, after this I want my steaks off the roasting-piece! - do ye hear that? - so mind your weather-eye, old boy!”
It was not long after this when the old pilot's companions insisted upon having these “small loin steaks” served to them.
Morrison soon discovered that these steaks were more suitable in size to dish up for single individuals, and he ever after purchased the sirloin roasting-pieces, from which he cut off these small steaks as they were called. The large sirloin-steaks becoming less in demand.
Morrison's butcher - Thomas Gibbons - in the Fly Market, one morning put the question, after he (Morrison) had selected several sirloin pieces, “Why he had ceased purchasing the usual quantity of sirloin steaks?”
Says Morrison, “I will tell you the reason: I cut off from the sirloin roasting-pieces a small steak which serves my pilots and single patrons best; but as it is now cold weather, I wish to have these roasting-pieces cut up as I shall direct every morning.”
After this, Morrison's sirloins were daily cut up by Mr. Gibbons, with his order to “cut steaks for the porter-house,” hence the sirloin was changed into “porter-house steak cuts.” Their appearance attracted the attention of other butchers and keepers of porter houses, who admired their appearance and convenient size; in a few years their name and character became quite common to the butchers of the Fly Market, from which the name has spread to the several principal cities of the United States, and I doubt not that the name, porterhouse steak has reached across the Atlantic…”
|A porterhouse t-bone steak in full sizzle|
Agreed, the 1867 text is a bit antiquated but here in a nutshell is what he was writing about: What is a Porterhouse Steak? A porterhouse steak is a New York strip and a delicate filet mignon separated by a T-shaped bone. It's considered by many to be the undisputed ruler of the steakhouse. By combining the tender filet with the beefy New York strip it eliminates decision making for many diners.
There are two more tales from older days describing the birth of the porterhouse steak. Cornelius Matthews’ 1842 novel The Career of Puffer Hopkins orders "a small porter-house steak, without the bone, for this time only.” We understand that today to be a strip steak, not a porterhouse steak, suggesting that the moniker may have referred to any steak served at a porter house.
One more porterhouse namesake origin story involves Charles Dickens. Hewson L. Peeke, author of A Standard History of Eerie County, Ohio posits that Dickens visited a porter house in Sandusky, Ohio and enjoyed a steak so much that when he travelled on to Buffalo, New York, he ordered a “steak like you get at the Porter house in Sandusky.”
The owner of the Buffalo establishment then began marketing his steaks as the kind that Charles Dickens likes. However, this origin story does not account for the specific cutting instructions that we now understand the porterhouse steak to entail, making Thomas F. De Voe’s argument the strongest.
Noteworthy. The New York Public Library has an archive of menus starting from the 1850s. The earliest reference to the porterhouse steak comes from the Northern Steamship Company/Great Northern Railway Line’s menu.
In 1900, they offered a porterhouse steak for $1.50. Times certainly have changed. If you’re interested in the history of restaurants, we recommend checking out NYPL’s menu archives.