Ever wonder – I mean really wonder – about the story behind the food on your plate?
Last week I had a lunch meeting in Mayfair, central London, at a pub known as The Only Running Footman.
It is a quaint, very typical English pub, all old and higgledy-piggledy, but nowadays billed as a “gastro-pub” that serves modern-British cuisine in the upstairs dining room. Which somewhat belies this particular pub’s long and colourful history, given it has been in continuous operation since 1749. That’s more than 250 years. Most of my English colleagues don’t even bat an eye at this incredible fact, although as an Australian it amazes me no end to think that people have been swilling pints of ale at this spot since well before the first European boats sailed into Sydney Harbour.
Anyway, while munching on my salad I asked the waitress serving us the origin of the pub’s name. She was Polish, and so her knowledge of the pub’s history was a tiny bit challenged. Her English vocabulary was even more so. So the answer we got was: “once, long time ago, there was footman, and he was only running one”. Thanks for that, sweetheart.
I would have left it at that, but one of my colleagues did some impromptu research. Back in the day, the well-to-do of Georgian England had amongst their many household staff a specific servant known as the footman. His job was straightforward: to run ahead of his master’s coach, through the narrow, crowded, shit-covered streets of old London, paying tolls and clearing the way so that the journey would go smoothly (see my previous post A Taxi in Perth for more on the horse manure issues of ye–olde England).
A footman was often the “public face” of his master, and so generally had to be tall, fit, and handsome. The latter attribute meant, however, that footmen were also often the target of affection for bored housewives of the day. Quite a few high-society scandals back then involved a footman on the prowl, so to speak.
For their troubles, footmen earned an annual salary of around £7 – roughly the price of my starter at lunch, although equivalent in today-dollars to about £60,000 per annum, so it was a pretty well paid position. Other perks included uniforms, full board, and the occasional joy of being raced like a pack-animal against footmen in the service of other wealthy families.
The Great Fire of London meant much of the city was rebuilt with larger, wider streets, and the need for footmen began to decline. One footman who lost his job bought “The Running Horse”, a drinking den which he and his fellow footmen often frequented. He renamed it to “I Am The Only Running Footman”. Over the years and then decades and then centuries, the pub’s name got shortened to its current form, and along the way, became something of a London institution. It has been visited by celebrities, businessmen and sport stars, and has been the staging site for countless pub crawls, stag nights and drinking binges.
All of which, I must admit, kind of made the otherwise fairly ordinary food seem so much tastier. Not only was it loaded with butter and salt, but with history and tradition as well.
I hate ties. I can’t stand having my neck constrained, and I see no point in wearing something that is of no utility whatsoever. A belt holds up trousers; underpants protect the crown jewels; a wristwatch tells time. But I challenge anyone to tell me what useful purpose a tie serves?
When ties first appeared on the scene, they were worn by heavily armoured soldiers on the battlefield, as a means of identifying opposing armies. Which I guess was fair enough – you wouldn’t want to be ramming your spear through someone only to find out you’d inadvertently committed the medieval equivalent of an own goal.
But then Louis XIV decided he kind of liked the idea, and started wearing frilly lace cravats while he pranced around the palace gardens. This set off a fashion craze across Europe, and the rest, as they say, is history. Ever since then, men all over the world are taught that they are not properly dressed unless they have a bit of coloured, utterly pointless fabric wrapped around their neck.
And, no matter how much I hate wearing ties, the convention is so strong that every now and again I can’t avoid having to put one on. Like at the important meeting with some Government officials scheduled for later that same afternoon, after lunch. Showing up with an open-necked shirt would at a minimum have branded me as an uncouth colonial, and more likely as a radical, free-thinking hippy-communist, not to be trusted.
A bit of a bugger, really, because in a recent wardrobe purge I had thrown out every tie that I owned. Hence after leaving The Only Running Footman I made an emergency visit to one of the many gentlemen’s outfitters that line Jermyn Street, home of the English shirt and tie trade, where I picked up a nice red-spotted number to wear at the meeting.
As I left the store, I passed a life-size bronze statue at the entrance to the Piccadilly Arcade. It was of a slender man, holding a top hat and cane, in coat and tails, and with pointy shoes on his feet. But what really caught my eye was the bouffant, overly elaborate neck-tie he was wearing. The plaque told me that this was a statue of George “Beau” Brummell, who lived from 1778 to 1840. The inscription read: “To be truly elegant one should not be noticed”.
I continued on my way and three hours later, my meeting finished, I called in at an art store just off Leicester Square. As I was leaving I noticed a small sign on the door of the neighbouring building, advising me that this was the home of the “Beefsteak Club”.
Now, I love steak. It is my favourite food. There is nothing quite like a fine hunk of perfectly charred meat, served up with a bit of relish or mustard on the side. I could eat that twice a day, every day, for the rest of my life. So the prospect of a whole club devoted to steak excited me no end. I should become a member, I immediately thought to myself, but I could find nothing else to shed any further light on the nature of this particular club. No phone number, no membership form, no hoarding. Just the small, plain sign on a locked door, and a logo that looked a bit like an inverted harp.
So again, I continued on my way.
Perhaps because of this I decided on a quiet steak for dinner. And where better for that than Hawksmoor, my favourite steak restaurant in London, if not the universe.
This temple of carnivorous delight is in a basement of what was once a brewery, near Covent Garden. Entry is though a nondescript doorway, off of an even more nondescript back-alley. You go down some stairs and arrive in a space that has been stunningly refurbished, showing off the raw brick, wooden beams and vaulted arch ceilings of the original structure.
Here, seven days a week, lunch and dinner, the faithful come to worship at the Sacred Altar of Seared Cow Flesh. Or as described quite accurately by the Guardian Newspaper when Hawksmoor opened: “If you love steak and live within striking distance of Covent Garden, the quality of your life just went up.”
The menu offers a selection of beautifully cooked slabs of meat, although the highlight is a daily specials blackboard, where a limited number of super-size cuts are available on a first-come-first-served basis. Things like 900 gram bone-in sirloins and 1.2kg chateaubriand (notionally for sharing, but fuck that I say). And, if that isn’t good enough, then call ahead and pre-order: with enough warning they will get you any steak you like, in any size you fancy.
Hawksmoor’s steak is best accompanied by several of their amazing side-dishes, like meltingly good macaroni cheese, roasted bone marrow topped with sautéed onion, creamed spinach, and thick-cut chips that have been triple cooked in beef-dripping.
The whole affair is a recipe for an instant heart-attack. But hey, I’m going to die one day, and honestly, could there be any better way to go out than with steak juice dribbling down my chin, a forkful of gooey macaroni cheese still grasped tightly in my rigor mortis frozen hand….
So anyway, I live close to Hawksmoor, and I go there every now and again. OK, maybe more than every now and again, judging by the fact that some of the wait-staff now know me by name. I am their resident Aussie, a meat-eating antipodean eccentric who sits alone at the bar, devouring half a cow while doing a crossword.
That night, however, I did not have the crossword handy, and in any case a large coffee-table style book was on the bar, for my reading pleasure. It was devoted to the subject of steak and great places to eat it in, Hawksmoor of course getting a solid mention.
So, while flicking through the book and its delectable photos, I came across a few pages on the Beefsteak Club. The very same one that I had stumbled upon earlier that day, next door to an art store, off Leicester Square.
It turns out that the Beefsteak Club originated in 1735 (so even before The Only Running Footman pub started) in the nearby Covent Garden theatre district, and had met over the years in various local pubs and bars. A group of meat enthusiasts – all male and largely artistic types like actors, writers, directors, and so on – had got together, wrote a constitution, and formed a club devoted to beef. The objective was to meet every week or so through the winter, and to pursue the lofty twin subjects of eating steak and talking politics.
I also learned that the term “club” was frowned upon by its members, who preferred to refer to themselves as a “society”, and more precisely, as The Sublime Society of Beef Steak, or the SSBS for short.
Membership of the SSBS became quite fashionable amongst the elite of London society at the time. More than just a forum for macho meat consumption, it was presented as having a higher social purpose. That is, eating steak was said to be a celebration of freedom, common law and sovereignty. According to SSBS philosophy, these virtues created a society in which the British public could afford to eat beef. Whereas the starving peasant-hicks on the Continent, living in a society bereft of all those things that made Britain great, could not. Clearly, Anglo-French rivalry was already rife back then, even if only as a pretty lame way to justify gluttony.
Traditions quickly formed around the society. Steaks were only ever served bare, on hot pewter plates, accompanied by simple boiled potatoes, onions, and port. Properly speaking only one course was served, but for the truly hungry a second dish of toasted cheese was occasionally allowed. Members were required to wear a uniform of blue waistcoat with brass buttons while they ate. There was singing of special songs devoted to the virtues of steak, reciting of poems professing undying love for steak, and it was compulsory to wear a society badge at all times, engraved with a gridiron motif and the official motto: “Beef and Liberty!”
Learning all this I became absolutely convinced that I should be a member of this fabulous society. But alas, it seems I have less chance of attaining SSBS membership than I do of becoming a Vatican Cardinal. You see, whilst the society exists to this day, there are only 24 members at any time, making it one of the most exclusive “clubs” in the UK. There is a long waiting list, and a spot becomes vacant only when an existing member dies. Plus, there is no way to “pull rank” – even when the future King George applied for membership, he had to wait until a slot opened up, just like everybody else.
But member or not, it seems that we all have the Sublime Society of Beef Steak to thank for our daily lunch. So the story goes, one of the society’s early members was John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, who apart from being a confirmed steak-lover was also a compulsive gambler. In 1762, while playing cards in a nearby pub, the Earl got hungry, and told one of his footmen to go find him a steak. Although not wanting to leave the card-game, he is reported to have said: “just bring me a piece of meat between two bits of bread”. It must have been good, because when the other card players saw what the Earl was eating, they asked for the same thing: “bring me what Sandwich is having”.
And thus the humble sandwich was born. Think of that tomorrow when you bite into your lunchtime BLT.
It seems, however, that the Beefsteak Club was not the first meat-focussed club of its kind. Indeed, it was originally formed by a group of defectors from the Kit Kat Club, which had existed for a century before, “desirous of proving substantial beef was as prolific a food for an English wit as pies and custards …”
And then, even more curious, I learned that these societies devoted to the sole purpose of worshipping steak existed almost as an “anti-movement” to the other fashionable gentlemen’s clubs of the day, the Macaroni Clubs, which as the name suggests were places where men got together to eat pasta.
Please explain? Well, in the 1600s and 1700s, young men from good families often did the “Grand Tour”, which involved travelling around Europe for an extended period of time. Some developed a liking for everything à la mode on the Continent: frilly clothes, red heels and striped stockings, tall powdered wigs, parasols, ribbons, and effeminate gestures. And from Italy in particular, they developed a taste for “fancy” foods like macaroni.
They brought these Continental foibles back to England with them, and thus became informally known as Macaronis – young men prone to eating noodles, strutting around pompously, and generally doing little besides being fabulous. Or as one writer of the time summed it up: “There is indeed a kind of animal, neither male nor female, a thing of the neuter gender, lately started up among us. It is called a Macaroni. It talks without meaning, it smiles without pleasantry, it eats without appetite, it rides without exercise, and it wenches without passion”.
The term “macaroni” entered into common usage, and came to have two broad meanings, the first referring to anything fashionable, and the second being an insult used to describe any form of unmanly behaviour. It crossed the Atlantic with British soldiers, who made up a song about Yankee Doodle, a boy who “stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni“. In so doing the soldiers were taking a swipe at the early Americans, the reference to “macaroni” a comment on their lack of prowess both as men and fighters (the reference to Doodle, by the way, is a similar barb: it is an Anglicized version of the German word dudel, meaning fool).
So next time you’re in Connecticut (where the song Yankee Doodle is that state’s official anthem), or indeed anywhere in the US (where it is sung as a patriotic war cry of sorts), or listening to The Voice of America (where each broadcast begins and ends with this tune), you can chuckle to yourself in the knowledge that those singing so proudly are actually describing themselves as limp-wristed yokels.
Although don’t say anything, just in case one of those limp-wristed yokels is packing an M-16. We are talking about America, after all.
All of which brought me, rather unexpectedly, back to my passionate hatred of neck-ties, and to the fellow whose statue I had seen in Jermyn Street earlier that day.
You see, the Macaronis were the precursors to the Dandies, a group of men in early 19th century England who took the excesses of the Macaronis to a whole new level, turning them into a way of life. Dandies devoted their entire existence to simply maintaining their physical appearance, and George Bryan “Beau” Brummel was widely considered the founder of this “lifestyle” movement.
When studying at Eton, the young George first got noticed for “spicing-up” what he considered to be an otherwise way-too-boring school uniform, with the addition of a shiny gold buckle. A brief stint at Oxford followed. There he developed what was to become a lifelong aversion to both books and work.
On graduating, Brummell vowed never to exert himself again, and then proceeded to make good on this vow by commencing a lifestyle where his average day involved five hours of getting ready. This included meticulous preparation of his chosen outfit, polishing his boots with champagne, and daily bathing (perhaps not so remarkable nowadays, but back then it was considered all a bit excessive, given that most men of the time thought a weekly bath was more than enough). Brummel’s attention to personal appearance and hygiene was all so unusual that apparently the Prince Regent (later to become King George IV) would often sit in and watch as his friend progressed through the various stages of this daily “toilette”.
Then, after all this preparation, Brummel and his dandy buddies would spend the rest of the day shopping, horse riding in the park, visiting gentlemen’s clubs, going to theatre, gambling, and indulging in the occasional spot of late-night whoring. Indeed, he became so well-known for his flamboyant lifestyle that Lord Byron named Brummel as one of the two men he admired most, alongside Napoleon Bonaparte. In a way, Beau Brummel was the original Paris Hilton – famous just for being famous.
All good things come to an end though, and in Brummel’s case the end was slightly tragic. His dandyism was financed by the £30,000 pounds he inherited from his wealthy father, and even though a fortune in those days, it was no match for the endless shopping sprees, parties and gambling. He was eventually declared bankrupt, ran away to France to escape creditors, and lived out the rest of his years in poverty. He eventually contracted syphilis, went mad, and was incarcerated in a French lunatic asylum, where he died at age 62.
A pretty sad and ignoble end for someone who fundamentally changed the way we all live. You see, it was Beau Brummel who first abandoned the powdered wigs so popular at that time, instead preferring to cut his hair short and wear a hat. It was Brummel who popularised the near-revolutionary idea of men shaving and brushing their teeth, every day. It was Brummel who first adopted the two-piece suit as a mode of daily dress, a sight to behold in his dark coat, full-length trousers and perfectly pressed white shirt (as opposed to the frilly jackets and breeches and stockings most men wore). And it was Brummel who revived the fashion of wearing an elaborately knotted cravat with his suit, adding a splash of colour and style to his otherwise perfectly tailored, close-fitted attire.
Indeed, if historical importance is judged by the enduring influence on everyday life that a person has, even long after they are gone, Brummel might very well be the most important person to have ever lived. We don’t all eat the same foods; we don’t all pray to the same God; we don’t all live in the same country or speak the same language. But every day, billions of men all around the world, regardless of colour or religion or nationality, pick up a razor, or slip on a suit jacket, or grapple in front of the mirror with an infernal necktie.
Something we all have Beau Brummel to thank for.
Every day we unthinkingly do things, say things, and eat things. Although normally, we don’t give a second thought as to why we do, say or eat these things. Scratch the surface though, and you may find that it all comes with a delicious, delightfully quirky history.
So next time you bite into a sandwich, remember that you do so courtesy of the Sublime Society of Beefsteak, and the gambling habit of one of its members. Or the next time you tuck into a dish of steak with a side order of macaroni, remember that in English society a few hundred years ago, you were either a man who ate steak and who loved liberty, or a man who ate macaroni and walked mincingly, but not both.
Very often the food we eat is so much more than mere sustenance, and if you allow it, may even have a fascinating story to tell. About things as random as footmen, Yankee Doodle, and the stupidity of wearing ties.