Charles Dickens and the Origin of the “Porterhouse Steak”

Mark asks: Why is a porterhouse steak called that?

steakEssentially two steaks in one, a Porterhouse steak, cut from the short loin of (typically) a steer, has a filet on one side of its T-shaped bone, and a New York Strip on the other. Presenting a massive plate of meat and often big enough for two to share, the Porterhouse has become a staple of American steak houses.

To be an official Porterhouse (as opposed to just a T-bone), the USDA requires that the steak be cut to no less than 1.25″ thick, which typically at a restaurant translates into a 16-ounce portion. It may be larger, however, and it is common to find both 24 and 48 ounce Porterhouse steaks (at about 1.5″ and 2.25″, respectively), on steak house menus as well.

Its name’s origins aren’t well known. One prominent theory, perhaps the most likely general origin, is that it traces back to “porter-house,” meaning a “restaurant or chophouse where porter [a kind of beer] is served,” first attested around 1754.

As for a moniker for a certain type of steak served at such establishments, “Porterhouse steak,” this seems to have first popped up around the 1840s, with some claiming it first appeared on the menu at a steakhouse in New York City. However, clear documentation on this one is a bit lacking. A better documented first instance of “porter-house steak,” is seen in 1842 when it appeared in Cornelius Mathews, The Career of Puffer Hopkins: “I guess I’ll take a small porter-house steak, without the bone, for this time only.”

The New York Public Library has a large collection of historical menus available for perusal online, but the earliest menu I could find in that collection with a Porterhouse steak is from 1900 and the Northern Steamship Company, which offered a single portion of “Porterhouse Steak,” for $1.50. Likewise, also in 1900, Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Club sold several different versions of a Porterhouse steak, including small ($1.00), the Porterhouse ($1.50) and an “Extra Porterhouse” ($2.50).

As for alternate theories, many around Boston disagree with the preceding claim, and they posit the name originated with Zachariah Porter, proprietor of Cambridge, Massachusetts’ Porter’s hotel.

A third claim places the origin of the enormous steak with the Porter house in Sandusky, Ohio. Recorded in a multi-volume history of the Southern Lake Eerie region written by a local lawyer, Hewson L. Peeke, according to this story, Charles Dickens, the famous English novelist, inadvertently named the cut.

As told by Peeke, after having been served the steak in Sandusky during a visit in 1842, Dickens traveled to Buffalo, New York where he requested of a hotel owner there, a “steak like you get at the Porter house in Sandusky.” The industrious Buffalo proprietor was then said to, according to the legend, make a fortune by “advertising ‘Porterhouse steak like Charles Dickens likes.'” Remarkably, according to a 1923 article in the Cambridge Chronicle, a signature purporting to be Charles Dickens’ was found in an old register kept in the Sandusky Porter house’s basement.

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Bonus Facts:

  • In 2010 and 2012, just over 34 and 32 million cattle, respectively, were processed in the United States; in both years, approximately 26 billion pounds of beef were produced. In 2012, the top states for slaughtering cattle were Nebraska, Texas and Kansas.
  • Depending on the operation, steers are slaughtered at anywhere from between one and two years. The “average dressed weight” of cattle (meaning the butchered meat) has increased by more than 40% between 1921 and 2009, from 541 pounds to 784.
  • According to NPR, it takes 6.7 pounds of grains and forage, in excess of 52 gallons of water and more than 1,000 BTUs of fossil fuel energy to produce each quarter-pound hamburger. And if you’re wondering: Do Cow Farts Significantly Contribute to Global Warming?
  • Meat consumption in the United States has increased from 9.8 billion pounds in 1909 to more than 52 billion in 2012. Remarkably, at an average of 270.7 pounds of meat eaten, per person, per year (over 50 pounds of which, on average, is beef), the United States comes in second among the world’s meat-eaters – falling short of Luxembourg’s 301.4 pounds per year (per person). In 2010, per capita spending on beef in the United States was nearly $240.
  • According to some sources, 80% of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used on livestock and poultry. On large feedlots, the tight quarters and messy conditions contribute to infections; to stop this before it starts, many feedlots provide antibiotics to their animals as a preventative measure – before any infection is seen. In addition, since the 1950s farmers have known that frequent doses of antibiotics promotes growth, and their widespread use is believed to have contributed to the increase in cattle size over the years.
  • As a result of the widespread use of antibiotics on cattle and poultry, as well as overprescribing to humans, antibiotic-resistant bacteria have become more common. In fact, today at least 2 million people each year become infected with an antibiotic-resistant bacteria, some of which are resistant to all known antibiotics.
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