Hilton Head Seafood Fest brings beefsteak to the Lowcountry

The strip loins served at the Hilton Head Island Seafood Fest will be cooked, but that's about the extent of planned embellishments. (Alan Hawes/Staff)

Beefsteaks are so well established in the Northeast that when The New York Times five years ago chronicled the format’s revival, its reporter determined a red meat smorgasbord occurs somewhere in the city almost once a week. But the messy, gluttonous meal is just beginning to make inroads elsewhere in the country, as evidenced by Top Chef’s careful explanation of the concept-- which was central to a January episode of the competitive cooking show -- and the response to a beefsteak planned for the upcoming Hilton Head Island Seafood Fest.

“It’s definitely the first of its kind in the Lowcountry,” says Clayton Rollison of Lucky Rooster, one of seven chefs working on the Mar. 3 event. According to Rollison, the notion is brand new to his customers.

Rollison was introduced to beefsteaks while working for Waldy Malouf at Beacon in midtown Manhattan.

“It was probably one of the coolest events I’ve ever seen,” he says.

Already the object of nostalgia when The New Yorker’s Joseph Mitchell in 1939 wrote the definitive description of men getting together to tear apart short loins with their hands, beefsteaks originated in the mid-1800s. They quickly became the default way to raise money for politicians; toast newly-promoted cops and celebrate Broadway stars’ birthdays: It wasn’t unusual for more than 300 people to convene for a beefsteak.

In addition to steak and beer, beefsteaks often featured lamb chops, beef kidneys and brass bands. The most storied of them didn’t feature napkins or chairs.

Before women got mixed up in beefsteaks, Mitchell wrote, “The life of the party (was) the man who let out the most ecstatic grunts, drank the most beer, ate the most steak and got the most grease on his ears.”

Since moving back to South Carolina, Rollison has been itching to stage a beefsteak. “We just never found the venue or the time, or a reason that made sense to do it,” he says. But with Hilton Head’s annual festival expanding its scope beyond seafood, Rollison and his colleagues scheduled Beefsteak Madness at Sunset Landing.

Guests at the $125 all-you-can-eat meal will receive an apron, souvenir copper mug; wine glass and – breaking with tradition – a silverware set. If diners lose their fork and knife, though, Rollison vows they won’t be replaced.

While Mitchell took issue with the appearance of salads and fruit cups at beefsteaks, the Beefsteak Madness menu includes pea salad; corn succotash; creamed southern greens; mac-and-cheese; roasted wild mushrooms and steak fries, as well as various cuts of beef and charcuterie.

“We’re turning this into a crazy production,” says Rollison, who salutes his customers for having enough faith in Hilton Head chefs to go along with the frenzy.

Other events on the calendar for the Hilton Head Island Seafood Fest – which coincides almost exactly with the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, but offers more programs geared toward local residents and families – include an oyster roast; Lowcountry boil cruise and offshore demos of shrimping, clamming and crabbing. For more information, visit hiltonheadseafoodfestival.com.