A few mornings ago I found myself out on my back patio at 7:30 a.m., lighting a fire and looking guiltily over my shoulder, hoping my neighbors wouldn’t smell the smoke and think I’d lost my mind. Before I had finished my first cup of coffee I had ceased to worry, for a thick sirloin was sizzling on the grate and the aroma of singed tallow was making my stomach growl. Back in 1840, the New Hampshire Patriot and State Gazette posed the question to its readers, “Why is a hungry man, waiting for his breakfast, willing to be a martyr?”
Answer: “Because he longs to go to the steak.”
Today’s breakfasters might not get the joke, for we’ve been raised to think of bacon and eggs and sweetened cereal as proper morning fare. Big, thick cuts of beef are for later in the day, but that hasn’t always been the case. European travelers, who back home started their days with bread and butter and a cup of coffee or tea, routinely commented on the heartiness of the breakfasts they found in the young United States.
Englishman James Stuart was bowled over in the late 1820s by the morning offering of “fish, beef-steaks, broiled chickens, and eggs in large quantities” at his New York hotel.
Americans took great pride in their hearty breakfasts, and especially in their steaks. “An American breakfast,” a writer for the Boston Post enthused in 1864, “is the beau ideal of a matutinal feast. The American porter-house steak … is an article sui generis.”
In 1883, M. Tarbox Colbrath wrote an entire book on the morning meal called What to Get for Breakfast, and she declared that “Beefsteak deserves the highest rank among breakfast fare.” Her 40-page chapter on “Beefsteak Breakfasts” included detailed instructions for broiling a steak and 17 sample beef-centered menus.
As the 20th century neared, though, forces began aligning against the morning steak. First there were the medical men, alarmed by the epidemic of “dyspepsia,” a catch-all term for chronic indigestion, that seemed to plague city dwellers and industrial workers. Many laid the blame for gastric distress on the heavy American diet, and in particular on breakfast.
“The American’s breakfast bill of fare is varied but little,” the Daily Illinois State Register complained in 1882. “Beefsteak, fried or baked potatoes, griddle cakes with syrup, or hot muffins and biscuit are the articles he sighs for and will have, despite the threatenings of dyspepsia.” Dietary reformers like John Harvey Kellogg and Charles W. Post advocated for meat-free breakfasts and introduced the grain-based substitutes that evolved into Corn Flakes and Grape Nuts in the early years of the the 20th century.
Kitchen innovations played a role, too. In the days of fireplace cookery, “broiling” was more akin to what we would call “grilling” today. The cook spread a bed of clean, glowing coals across the hearth, placed a gridiron over them, and cooked the meat over the embers. Frying, on the other hand, was accomplished by mounding hot ashes and placing cast iron frying pan directly on top, so the meat was cooked by the heat of the metal.
Broiling was by far the preferred method for steak, but cooks increasingly resorted to the more expedient route of frying. As one household manual put it, “Do any of you have to get up early in the morning and get breakfast in such a terrible hurry that you can’t wait for nice coals to broil the steak?” The solution was simple: pound the beef well, roll it in crushed cracker crumbs, and fry it in hot butter.
Pan-fried steaks were widely reviled. “Perhaps the very worst thing to do with beef is to fry it,” the Camden Democrat declared in 1874, but it nevertheless offered tips for making a fried steak “digestible”: Cut it thinly across the grain, pound well, and fry quickly in melted tallow, turning it several times in the process. Such devices did little to salvage a mistreated piece of beef.
“The hastily fried steak,” Marion Harland sniffed in The Home-Maker (1889), “will be eaten without relish … it really is hard and tasteless, and terribly indigestible.”
Matters worsened as gas and electric stoves were adopted—boons for the home cook, who no longer had to haul wood and tend a fire but disastrous for the quality of steaks, now “broiled” over flavorless, artificial flame. By World War II, steak lingered on as a breakfast food only in roadside diners, where it was cooked on flat-top griddles—which is to say, fried.
I’m a big fan of the steak and eggs found in old-school diners, but I know they’re pale shadows of a once-glorious American breakfast dish. These days, a “breakfast steak” is invariably a thin cut, and often a cheap one like round steak that no self-respecting carnivore would dare grill for dinner. Modern recipes call for an array of tenderizing steps: piercing the meat with a thin blade, pounding it with a mallet, marinating it in oils and acids. “Thin steaks are cooked quickly and finish in minutes,” such recipes promise, as if that’s a selling point.
Why short change the morning meal? Let’s bring back the steak for breakfast. And I mean real steaks—sirloins, rib-eyes, the glorious porterhouse—not those thin, leathery cuts best suited for shoe repair. And let’s put aside the frying pan, fire up a charcoal grill, and cook them the proper way. That's how I ended up on the back patio so early in the day.
No scrambled eggs or hash-browned potatoes alongside—we’ll save that for Waffle House. I went instead with M. Tarbox Colbrath’s “Breakfast No. 2” of sirloin beef-steak, buttered toast, baked apple sauce, and ripe fruit. I won’t claim, as Mrs. Colbrath did, that it was “a simple and easily digested breakfast,” but damn, was it delicious.