Steak—an American staple with Norse roots
M. Michael Brady
The steak is a great American staple, so much so that restaurants specialized in serving it are called steakhouses. Unsurprisingly, New York has more steakhouses than any other city, as the first ones started there in the late 19th century. They are so numerous that the Gayot culinary guide annually lists the top ten. Among them is the granddaddy of them all, Keens Steakhouse on West 36th Street in Manhattan, opened in 1885. Through the years it has assembled the world’s largest collection of churchwarden pipes checked in by customers, a tradition dating back to the chophouses of the 1690s in London.
Across the country there are more than 40 steakhouse chains and as many independent steakhouses, in small towns as well as big cities. There’s a giant, the Big Texan Steak Ranch, opened in 1960 on Route 66 in Amarillo, Texas, and now known for its stretch Cadillacs and gourmand eating contests.
The prominence of the steakhouse on the everyday scene led to its becoming known around the world as a cornerstone of American cuisine, and there now are steakhouses even in France. That said, the origins of the two words forming the compound word steakhouse lie elsewhere, in Old Norse, and their paths through history to modern languages differ.
In modern English, the word house evolved directly from the Old English hús, as did the similar modern Norwegian word hus. However, the Old Norse word steik, meaning “a large piece of meat,” led to differing modern words. In Norwegian, the connection was direct, resulting in the modern noun stek, a large piece of meat, and in the modern verb steke, meaning to grill, fry, roast, or bake. In English, the connection to the modern noun also was direct, leading to the word steak. But starting in the early 15th century, there was a change of meaning, due most likely to a difference of cookery tradition. A steak was not a large piece of meat, but rather a slice of it. There was no parallel evolution to a verb; by the early 18th century, one spoke of boiling or roasting steaks, the predecessors of the barbecuing and grilling of today.
That etymologic nuance led to a modern lexicographic curiosity. There is no native Norwegian word for steakhouse, so the language uses the loanword unchanged: steakhouse. There’s even a Norwegian chain of restaurants named Big Horn Steakhouse, 24 in cities across the country and one in the city of Puerto Rico on the Spanish island of Gran Canaria about 93 miles off the northwest coast of Africa, a popular Norwegian vacation destination.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 9, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.