The Origin of the Porterhouse Steak
The Porterhouse Steak is the king of all steaks, but how long exactly has it sat upon this throne? Like so many other widely recognized dishes, the porterhouse steak has contested origins. Thomas F. De Voe’s 1867 book The Market Assistant details dishes sold at markets and restaurants in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia in the 1800s. Back then, restaurants and taverns were often called porter houses, as they served a style of beer called porter. One busy day, at a porter house operated by Martin Morrison, a starving maritime pilot ordered a steak, but the establishment was 86’d. Being the generous and hospitable proprietor he was, Morrison went back to his kitchen and cut a steak off a short loin that he had planned on roasting whole. The pilot was so satisfied with his steak he ordered another and said “Look ye here, messmate, after this I want my steaks off the roasting-piece! - do ye hear that? - so mind your weather-eye, old boy!” Morrison continued to serve these steaks and continued to receive high praise. Rather than cut each steak to order himself, Morrison began ordering strip loins cut into steaks from his butcher, who referred to them as “cut steaks for the porter-house,” which eventually became porterhouse steaks.
Cornelius Matthews’ 1842 novel The Career of Puffer Hopkins orders "a small porter-house steak, without the bone, for this time only.” We understand that today to be a strip steak, not a porterhouse steak, suggesting that the moniker may have referred to any steak served at a porter house. Another origin story involves Charles Dickens. Hewson L. Peeke, author of A Standard History of Eerie County, Ohio posits that Dickens visited a porter house in Sandusky, Ohio and enjoyed a steak so much that when he travelled on to Buffalo, New York, he ordered a “steak like you get at the Porter house in Sandusky.” The owner of that establishment then began marketing his steaks as the kind that Charles Dickens likes. However, this origin story does not account for the specific cutting instructions that we now understand the porterhouse steak to entail, making Thomas F. De Voe’s argument the strongest.
The New York Public Library has an archive of menus starting from the 1850s. The earliest reference to the porterhouse steak comes from the Northern Steamship Company Great Northern Ry. Line’s menu. In 1900, they offered a porterhouse steak for $1.50. Times certainly have changed. If you’re interested in the history of restaurants, we recommend checking out NYPL’s archive here.