Hopefully, Richmond won’t ruin it.
Jamie Gregory isn’t as inflexible about the inclusion of women in April’s Richmond Beefsteak event as the 19th-century saloon owners and butchers mentioned in Joseph Mitchell’s 1939 New Yorker article, “All You Can Hold for Five Bucks.”
“It didn’t take women long to corrupt the beefsteak,” Mitchell writes. “They forced the addition of such things as Manhattan cocktails, fruit cups and fancy salads to the traditional menu of slices of ripened steaks, double lamb chops, kidneys, and beer by the pitcher.”
The result? “Most beefsteaks degenerated into polite banquets at which open-face sandwiches of grilled steak happened to be the principal dish,” he writes.
Gender notwithstanding, that wasn’t what these events were all about.
Mitchell, in the late 1930s, was waxing nostalgic about a time 50 years earlier, when men got together — only men, sometimes by the hundreds — donned aprons and chef hats, and consumed pounds and pounds of meat with their bare hands. There were no utensils and no napkins. And given the gallons of beer that washed down the feast, the events, called beefsteaks, became raucous.
Gregory ran across Mitchell’s article about 10 years ago and was inspired. The native Richmonder was living in Chicago and wanted to re-create every detail of the event that Mitchell so lovingly reported.
“I wanted girls to come,” Gregory says, “but I wanted to stay true to the story.” That meant this incarnation of the beefsteak would be a stag event for the 21st century.
The night before the first Chicago Beefsteak, the event’s planned venue, Charlie’s Ale House, unexpectedly closed. Gregory scrambled to relocate and reschedule. Along with cofounders Anthony Ewing and Nate Johnson, Gregory rounded up meat, chefs and liquor.
Ultimately, the paper-covered tables at the Belden-Stratford, a former hotel, were lined with men in dressed in suits, aprons and hats. They left a little worse for the wear, stained with grease and hoarse from cheering each course.
“Big trays are brought out with strip loin on top of day-old bread,” says Gregory. “It’s survival of the fittest.”
The Chicago Beefsteak is still a regular event, despite that Gregory and his wife, Cornelia — who created the brand for the event and regularly collaborates with her husband — moved to Richmond.
As an underwriting manager for fine art and museums at the Markel Corp., it occurred to Gregory while he was attending the big international art fair, Miami’s Art Basel, that a Richmond event could make for an ideal benefit for the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University. He found enthusiastic partners in Saison’s Adam Hall and the Center of the Universe Brewing Co. And the Tuckahoe Women’s Club became its unlikely venue.
There’s a key difference to the Richmond event: Women are welcome to attend. And, because Carol Anne Baker Lajoie, director of development for the institute, is vegetarian, there will be a nonmeat option. One. Just one.
“People need to note that it’s a meat-focused event,” Gregory says.
With lamb, mini burgers, strip loin and Wagyu beef — for dessert, of course — it’s a meal where pacing is important. Suits for men, and business or cocktail attire for women, are mandatory — formality is part of the adventure.
While piles of uneaten bread stack the table — a way to convey meat, not a part of the meal — vacuum-sealed steaks will be raffled off between courses. And because you can’t reserve seats, you’re going to make friends with strangers during the evening.
Ultimately, Gregory wants to put on the event for the institute annually, he says: “I love the juxtaposition of this primal experience with the delicate idea of contemporary art.”
The Richmond Beefsteak will be held at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, April 22. Tickets cost $135. Tuckahoe Woman’s Club, 4215 Dover Road. therichmondbeefsteak.com.