Robert Benchley ~ A Piece of Roast Beef

benchley 1Personally, I class roast beef with watercress and vanilla cornstarch pudding as tasty articles of diet. It undoubtedly has more than the required number of calories; it leans over backward in its eagerness to stand high among our best proteins, and, according to a vivid chart in the back of the cookbook, it is equal in food value to three dried raisins piled one on the other plus peanut-butter the size of an egg.

But for all that I can’t seem to feel that I am having a good time while I am eating it. It stimulates the same nerve centers in me that a lantern-slide lecture on “Palestine—the Old and the New,” does.

However, I have noticed that there are people who are not bored by it; in fact, I have seen them deliberately order it in a restaurant when they had the choice of something else; so I thought that the only fair thing I could do would be to look into the matter and see if, in this great city, there weren’t some different ways of serving roast beef to vary its monotony.

Roast beef is not the same price in all eating-places. What makes the difference? What does a diner at the Ritz get in his “roast prime ribs of beef au jus” that makes it distinctive from the “Special to-day—roast beef and mashed potatoes” of the Bowery restaurant?

To answer these questions I started out on a tour of the representative eating-places of some of our best known strata of society, and, whatever my conclusions are, you may be sure that they are thoroughly inexpert.

First, I tried out what is known as the Bay State Lunch, so called because on Thursdays they have a fishcake special. It is one of the hundreds of “self-serving” lunchrooms, where you approach the marble counter and give your order in a low tone to a man in a barber’s coat, and then repeat it at intervals of one minute, each time louder and each time to a different man, until you are forced to point to a tub of salmon salad and say, “Some of that,” for which your ticket is punched and you are allowed to take your portion and nurse it on the over-developed arm of a chair.

Here the roast beef shot through the Punch and Judy arrangement in the wall, a piece of meat about as large around as a man’s-size mitten, steeping in its own gravy and of a pale reddish hue. The price was twenty cents, which included a dab of mashed potato dished out in an ice-cream scoop, a generous allowance of tender peas, two hot tea-biscuits and butter to match.

Considering the basic ingredient, it was a perfectly satisfactory meal, and I felt that twenty cents was little enough to pay for it, especially since it was going in on my expense account.

For the next experiment I went to a restaurant where business men are wont to gather for luncheon, men who pride themselves on their acumen and adherence to the principles of efficiency. The place has a French name and its menus are printed on a card the size of a life insurance company’s complimentary calendar, always an ominous sign. The roast beef here was served cold, with a plate of escarole salad (when I was a boy I used to have to dig escarole out of the front lawn with a trowel so that the grass could have a chance) for seventy-five cents.

The meat bulked a little larger than at the Bay State Lunch, but when the fat had been cut away and trimmed off the salvage was about the size of a boy’s mitten. As for the taste, the only difference that I could detect was that one had been hot and the other cold.

And, incidentally, the waiter had some bosom friends in the next room who fascinated him so that it was all I could do to make him see that if he didn’t come around to me once in a while, just as a matter of form, there would be no way for me to tip him. Beef and salad, plus tip, ninety cents.

That evening I ambled up the Bowery until I came to the Busy Home Restaurant. On a black-board in front was written, “Roast Beef, Mashed Potatoes and Coffee, 10 Cents.” My old hunger again seized me. I said to myself: “Look here! Be a man! This thing is getting the best of you.” But before I knew it I was inside and seated at an oilcloth-covered table, saying, in a hoarse voice, “Roast beef!”

The waiter was dressed in an informal costume, with his shirt-sleeves rolled up and a mulatto apron about his waist, but he smiled genially when he took my order and was back with it in two minutes. The article itself was of the regulation size, cut somewhat thinner, perhaps, and bordering on the gray in hue, but undoubtedly roast beef. It, too, had an affinity for its own gravy and hid itself modestly under an avalanche of mashed potatoes. A cup of coffee was also included in the ten cents’ initial expense, but I somehow wasn’t coffee-thirsty that night, and so didn’t sample it. But I did help myself to the plate piled high with fresh bread which was left in front of me. All in all, it was what I should call a representative roast beef dinner. And I got more than ten cents’ worth of calories, I know.

But so far I had kept below the Fourteenth Street belt in my investigations. Roast beef is a cosmopolitan habit, and knows no arbitrary boundaries; so I went uptown. Into one of the larger of our largest hotels, one which is not so near the Grand Central Station as to be in the train-shed, and yet not so far removed from it as to be represented by a different Assemblyman. Here, I felt, would be the test. Could roast beef come back? Surrounded by glittering chandeliers and rich tapestries, snowy table linen and silver service, here was the chance for the ordinary roast beef to become a veritable dainty, with some character, some distinctive touch that should lift it above all that roast beef has ever meant before. I entered the dining-room, in high hopes.

Clad in a walking suit of virile tweed, I considered myself respectably dressed. Not ostentatiously respectable, mind you, but, since most of the other diners were in evening dress, rather distingué, I thought.

But apparently the hotel retainers weren’t trained to look through a rough exterior and find the sterling qualities beneath. They looked through my rough exterior all right, but they didn’t stop at my sterling qualities. They looked right through to the man behind me, and gave him the signal that there was a seat for him.

Not to be outdone, however, I got my place in the sun by cleverly tripping my rival as he passed me, so that he fell into the fountain arrangement, while I sat down in the seat pulled out for him by the head waiter. And, once I was in, there was nothing for them to do but let me stay.

After I had been there a few minutes a waiter came and put on a fresh table cloth. Five minutes later another man placed a knife and spoon at my plate. Later in the evening a boy with a basket of rolls wandered by and deposited one on my table with a pair of pincers. Personally, I was rather glad that it was working out this way, for it would make my story all the better, but I might have really been in a hurry for my dinner.

It wasn’t long, as the crow flies, before one of the third assistant waiters unloosened enough to drop round and see if there was anything else I wanted besides one roll and a knife and spoon. I looked over the menu as if I were in a pretty captious mood, and then, with the air of an epicure who has tasted to the dregs all the condiments of Arabia and whose jaded palate refuses to thrill any longer, I ordered “roast beef.”

It was billed as “90 (.80),” which didn’t strike me as being very steep, considering the overhead expense there must be in keeping little knots of waiters and ‘bus-boys standing round doing nothing in the further corner of the room.

The waiter wasn’t very enthusiastic over my order, and something saved me from asking him if they threw in “a side” of mashed potatoes with the meat. He seemed to expect something more, even after I had ordered potatoes, so I suggested an artichoke. That cheered him up more than anything I had done that evening, and he really got quite fratty and said: “A little salad, sir?” Again I imitated a man who has had more experience with salads than any other three men put together and who has found them a miserable sham.

“No; that will be all for now,” I said, and turned wearily away. I wanted to tell him that I had a dinner coat at home that looked enough sight better than his, but there is no use in making a scene when it can be avoided.

During the next twenty minutes the orchestra played once and I ate my roll. Then the roast beef came.

On a silver platter, with a silver cover, it was placed before me under the best possible scenic conditions. But the thing that met my gaze when the cover was lifted might just as well have been the same property piece of roast beef that was keeping company with a dab of mashed potato in the Bay State Lunch. It had a trifle more fat, was just a shade pinker, and perhaps a micrometer could have detected a bit more bulk; but, so far as I was concerned or so far as the calories were concerned, it was the same. I won’t say that it was the same as the Roast Beef Special of the Bowery Restaurant, because the service in the Bowery Restaurant was infinitely better.

As a fitting garniture to such a dish, there was a corsage of watercress draped on the corner of the salver. At any rate, it could be said for it that it was not intoxicating, and so could never cause any real misery in this world.

I nibbled at my roast beef, but my spirit was broken. I had gone through a week of self-denial, ordering roast beef when I craved edibles, eating at restaurants while my family waited for me at home, and here was the result of my researches: Roast beef is roast beef, and nothing can prevent it. From the ten-cent order of the Busy Home Restaurant, up through to the piece I was then eating, it was the same grim reality, the only justification for a difference in price being a silver salver or a waiter in a tuxedo.

“But,” I said to myself, “eighty cents isn’t so much, at that. Besides, I have heard the orchestra play one tune every half-hour, and have had a kind word from one of the chargés d’affaires of the waiter’s staff.”

This quite reconciled me, until my check was brought. There, added to the initial expense of eighty cents, was the upkeep, such as “Cover, 25c.” “Potatoes, 30c.” And to this must be added the modest fee of twenty cents to the waiter and ten cents to the hat-boy who gave me the wrong hat. Total expense for one piece of roast beef, $1.70.

These investigations may not prove to be much of a contribution to modern science or economics. I doubt if they are ever incorporated in any textbook, even if it should be a textbook on this very subject. But I must take credit to myself for one thing: Not once throughout the whole report have I alluded to the Tenderloin District.

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