smothered in onions is commonly found on menus. So
is steak smothered in mushrooms. There’s something
even better: steak smothered in oysters.
Oysters are an ideal concomitant of beef. If that doesn’t immediately strike
you as a truism, just ask an Australian.
“Down under,” they serve a dish called “carpetbag steak.” It
starts with a thick cut of beef, upon which surgery is performed. A deep incision
is made, Sydney rock oysters are crammed in the pocket (generally after being
dipped in Worcester sauce), and the opening is sealed with skewers. This “turf
and surf” amalgam then is cooked, generally rare, either pan-fried or broiled
in the oven.
Other ingredients sometimes included in the pocket are butter, lemon juice, parsley,
bread crumbs or shredded cheese.
The dish became popular in Sydney in about 1950, and has spread to Great Britain,
South Africa and elsewhere, with local variations. Smoked oysters are, regrettably,
sometimes substituted for fresh ones.
Although associated with Australia, the dish is not Australian in origin. It
was concocted in the United States, apparently in the first half of the 19th
century, though its history is foggy.
Among the restaurants serving carpetbag steak well before the Aussies latched
onto it was Chasen’s in Los Angeles, an eatery that opened in 1936 as “Chasen’s
Southern Pit,” a six-table rib and chili joint. By the time it closed in
1995, it was a fabled and elegant hang-out for Hollywood stars and for a former
star who had become a United States president.
Some suspect that just as the Shirley Temple cocktail was concocted there, so
was the carpetbag steak.
In the United States, the dish is more often than not referred to as “carpetbagger
steak,” rather than “carpetbag steak.” The former term doesn’t
make sense; the latter does.
After the Civil War, there were exploitative Northerners who forayed to the South,
with their belongings in satchels fashioned from carpets, who gained local offices.
The carpetbags were stuffed; so, likening a steak that is stuffed to a carpetbag
is strained but comprehensible.
The term “carpetbagger,” on the other hand, referred to the people
carrying the carpetbags. It’s applied modernly to a person who seeks office
in an area in which the person is a newcomer. To liken a steak to people who
are profiteers new to the scene doesn’t seem apt.
It was about 20 years ago that my wife, Jo-Ann, cooked a carpetbag steak, using
an old recipe. I recall that rather than closing the pocket with skewers, as
they do in Australia, she sewed the meat with twine.
I can’t find the recipe in her cookbooks; she might have come across it
in a magazine or newspaper. Perhaps it was a reprint of that appearing in “Cooking
a la Ritz” by Louis Diat, published in 1941 (believed to be the first recipe
for the dish in print). At least, the recipe she used was a close facsimile.
Diat’s recipe instructed:
“Have the butcher cut steak from the sirloin 1 1/2 to 2 inches thick, and
then cut through the center to make a pocket. Stuff this pocket with raw oysters,
seasoned with salt and pepper. Then sew the edges of pocket together.
“Broil about fifteen minutes on each side….”
Jo-Ann was not enthralled with the dish. Being an avid aficionado of beef, she
sees no need for A1 Sauce or other such enhancements on steaks, so it probably
should not have been a surprise that she did not find the addition of oysters
to be an improvement to the meat.
To me, the dish seemed bland but promising. It needed something to boost the
flavor (like the Worchester sauce used by the Australians). And, to my half-Norwegian
taste buds, the proportion of beef to oyster needed to be inverted — that
is, more oyster, less beef.
So, when we have steak, Jo-Ann has a large cut, generally seasoned only with
garlic powder and sea salt, and I’m apt to have a filet, with mounds of
sautéed oysters. The oysters are splashed with Chinese oyster sauce and
swished around in the pan shortly before I pour them over the steak.
While the origin of carpetbag steak is uncertain, it is known that the combining
of beef and oysters did not start with that dish. Early American recipes called
for smothering steaks with oysters, or adding oysters to the pot shortly before
the meat was done.
Beef and oyster pie was also a dish known in the 19th century, and perhaps before
To beef purists like my wife, this column will have no relevance. But if you
like beef and will entertain the prospect that its flavor just might profit from
the addition of oysters, try it.
The "55-Plus" column
is written especially for those over the age of 55, by a veteran California
journalist who is himself eligible for the club. Roger M. Grace has written
and edited newspapers for more than four decades, and has been a lawyer for
more than three.