What is prime rib? A dish from America's past is reimagined every Christmas

On a biting December evening, the St. Clair Supper Club in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood offered an escape from the weather — and into America’s culinary past.

In the dimly lit basement dining room, the walls were covered in wood paneling, and paper placemats cheerfully proclaimed, “We’re glad you’re here!” A padded leather strip ran around the edge of the long bar, inviting guests to join lean back for a while. Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” played over the speakers and Gordon Lightfoot sang “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

The atmosphere was enjoyed by young couples dining and groups of friends gathering for holiday martinis. And on almost every table, wading in puddles of fragrant jus, lay large, rosy cuts of prime rib—the charismatic mega-protein that defined the sense of middle-class American affluence for so many decades.

But the year, despite all appearances, was 2023.

The St. Clair Supper Club simulates a once-common dining experience that can still be found in numerous cities in Wisconsin, Illinois or Pennsylvania. But it’s run by Grant Achatz, one of the most inventive chefs in the United States. He has created a kind of prime rib museum that honors not only the generous cuts of beef on the plate, but also what they symbolize: a lost mid-century food culture of accessible abundance.

According to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, this idea is particularly powerful during the holiday season, when consumers purchase 70 percent of all prime rib sold in the United States in a given year. The stockpiling and shock freezing of these cuts begins in May. While grocery stores primarily sell burgers for backyard grills all summer long, the beef industry is already thinking about the biggest seller of the year: the December stand-up roast.

“We see holidays and special occasions as times when longer traditions and deeper stories about how we interact with food are expressed in ritual,” said Joshua Specht, the author of “Red Meat Republic” and associate professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.

“What time of year is more important to show that everything is going well than at Christmas?” he added.

St. Clair’s guests aren’t the only ones indulging in a little nostalgia. Even as steak prices have risen to all-time highs and serious climate and health concerns have arisen around beef, demand for prime rib has increased over the past 20 years. The appeal of a rib roast is particularly strong at Christmas, with around £33 million sold during last year’s Christmas period.

It may be a dish from America’s past, but it’s a past that many Americans enjoy revisiting.

The popularity of prime rib exploded in the United States after World War II. The United States was the world’s dominant superpower, the economic future looked bright, and beef – which had been rationed for years – was back on the table.

Amy Bentley, a professor of food studies at New York University and author of “Eating for Victory,” called the cut “a powerful symbol of abundance.”

“That big roast in the middle with the side dishes was a symbol of a meal fit for Americans,” she said. “’Freedom From Want’ was Norman Rockwell’s way of describing it.”

A print advertisement from the American Meat Institute in the mid-1940s combined these ideas in the truest sense of the word. Beneath a photo of a raw rib roast on a crimson background was the text: “This is not just a piece of meat… This is a symbol of man’s desire, his will to survive.” The campaign was published in Life magazine, the mass bible of the white middle class. America, published and seen by millions.

The gendered nature of this early tonal language found its way into the menus of the prime rib restaurants that proliferated in the 1950s and 1960s—places where you could get “Paul Bunyan’s Cut” or “King Henry VIII Cut” or something similar for less Hungry guests can choose from the “Queen Cut” or “Ladies Slice”.

Lawry’s the Prime Rib, which still offers the “Diamond Jim Brady Cut,” was among the first of these restaurants, opening its original Los Angeles location in 1938. House of Prime Rib in San Francisco followed in 1949; the Prime Rib in Portland, Oregon, opened in 1954; and Prime Rib (no relation) in Baltimore opened in 1965.

Prime Rib didn’t just meet you where you lived; It also welcomed you on vacation, especially in Las Vegas. A top seller and a staple for nearly every casino on the Strip, prime rib became the perfect dish for a city that bills itself as a vacation land of middle-class luxury.

Even well into the 1990s, a prime rib dinner cost less than $10 at some Las Vegas restaurants. Until a few years ago, Jerry’s Famous Coffee Shop, which opened in the Nugget Casino in 1954, served top-notch ribs 24 hours a day. It’s no longer available at 4 a.m., but an 8-ounce serving is still available at a cheaper hour for just $19.99.

And of course, especially in the upper Midwest, there were the countless working-class restaurants like St. Clair’s.

“I think these places were a little bit like — and I don’t mean that in a bad way — a bowling alley,” said Nick Kokonas, owner of the Alinea restaurant group, which operates St. Clair. “People went bowling in the community, and it wasn’t so much about the game, but more about meeting all the neighbors, drinking beer, having conversations and having mindless fun – in a good way.”

If St. Clair is reminiscent of Prime Rib Nation’s mid-century bowling alley, the Seagram Building’s Grill is the soaring temple of Manhattan modernism.

Originally opened in 1959 as the Four Seasons and revived under the new name by Major Food Group in 2017, the space was designed by Philip Johnson with high ceilings and cream French walnut paneling. At various points in the 1960s you could see a Jackson Pollock hanging on the wall and Jackie Kennedy having lunch.

For Major Food Group co-owner Mario Carbone, prime rib was a staple in the space.

“I think you would be hard-pressed to find a better culinary representation of that period than this dish,” Mr. Carbone said. “Which made it obvious for us to serve him – the pomp and circumstance.”

In addition to the $95 price tag, this pomp also includes a custom-built serving cart in Brooklyn that is wheeled to the table by one of the grill’s two dedicated carvers, who then cuts portions to order.

“It’s movements like that and pieces like that in a dining room that help us really tell the story to guests,” Mr. Carbone said.

However, the story referenced in this Prime Rib in the Grill is a story of American economic optimism and security. And in the early 1970s, that story began to change.

The price of beef was so high at this point that boycotts and protests were organized against grocery stores. In the opening sequence of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” Mary Richards famously rolled her eyes when she saw the label on a package of meat before throwing it into her shopping cart. In 1973, Curtis Mayfield sang about “the price of meat / Higher than the drugs on the street” in “Future Shock,” and President Richard M. Nixon had announced government-imposed price caps on beef.

A few years later, in 1976, per capita beef consumption in the United States peaked at about 90 pounds per year and has been declining ever since. According to the USDA, that number is now about 60 pounds per person per year, although that number is historically higher in the Midwest, the region that consumes most of the country’s beef.

Many factors may have contributed to the decline: increased awareness of health risks, increasing environmental concerns about livestock production, and changing demographics in American eating habits. But it also coincides with the decline of the middle class in many American places, where prime rib has the most influence.

“This is a time when a certain kind of masculinity and a certain kind of economic man are breaking down,” said Prof. Specht. “There is a phase change in the economy that is accompanied by a change in the position of the male breadwinner. To be a successful man, you have to eat steak. And that collapses in the 1970s.”

The residual effects of this idea may still be evident today. A recent study published in the journal Nutrients showed that half of all beef consumed on a given day in the United States is eaten by just 12 percent of the population. And that 12 percent were most likely white men between the ages of 50 and 65.

But that phrase never made sense to chef Angie Mar. The granddaughter of Chinese immigrants, she grew up in Seattle and ate prime rib not just at Christmas but every Sunday for family dinner. “It’s really wonderful to see it carved,” she said. She now serves prime rib every Thursday at her restaurant Le B in Manhattan.

“I think the idea of ​​food having a gendered association is so ridiculously American,” she said. “Great food is great food. And it brings everyone to the same table.”

When it comes to the price of beef, the early 70s have nothing to offer today. A December 20, 1973 New York Times grocery ad advertised USDA choice rib roast for $1.29 per pound. In 2023 dollars, that’s $8.59 per pound. These days it’s hard to find prime rib for twice the price in many places around the country.

Thomas Dobbels isn’t particularly worried, even though he works in the beef business. For 18 years, he has owned Sages Meat Market in Oswego, Illinois, a suburb on the far west side of Chicago about 50 miles from St. Clair.

“Nobody asks the price,” said Mr. Dobbels, who grew up on a farm in western Illinois before earning his doctorate. in Meat Science from Kansas State University. “They just say: I want the good stuff. I think people are saving for the holidays.”

At least one customer this year ordered a full batch of rib roast, about 20 pounds, which costs more than $600 at Sages’ current price of $31.99 per pound for USDA prime grades.

“I think there has to be a connection to the past and a connection to the family,” Mr. Dobbels said. “The meal where we all sit at the table is something that can really bring us home. So I think the food will always be there, especially around the holidays. There is a division taking place in this country. But obviously there are a lot of people who like to do things the old way.”

Chris Durkin, dining with his wife and two other couples at the St. Clair Supper Club that busy evening, felt a similar pull.

“You want to light it at least once during the holidays,” he said. “As we get older, we eat less and less beef. So that was definitely a treat.”

Mr. Durkin grew up in a West Chicago suburb in the 1960s and frequented exactly the kind of restaurant that brought St. Clair back to life, as did the friends he dined with.

“All three couples, we all grew up vacationing in Wisconsin and going to supper clubs,” he said. “You don’t get this feeling anywhere else.”

As you treated yourself to prime rib today, he said, “You’re almost on vacation in a different time.”

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