What Is Prime Rib? A Dish from America’s Past Gets Revisited Every Christmas

On a biting December evening, the St. Clair Supper Club in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood offered an escape out of the weather — and into America’s culinary past.

In the dimly lit basement dining room, wood paneling covered the walls, and paper place mats cheerily proclaimed, “We’re glad you’re here!” A cushioned leather strip ran around the lip of the long bar, inviting guests to lean in for a while. Over the speakers, Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” gave way to Gordon Lightfoot crooning “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

Enjoying the ambience were young couples on dinner dates and groups of friends gathering for holiday martinis. And on nearly every table, wading in pools of redolent jus, were great rosy slabs of prime rib — the charismatic megaprotein that for so many decades defined a sense of middle-class American plenty.

But the year, despite all appearances, was 2023.

The St. Clair Supper Club simulates a dining experience that once was widespread, one that still can be found in any number of towns in Wisconsin, Illinois or Pennsylvania. But it is run by Grant Achatz, one of the most inventive chefs in the United States. He has created a sort of prime-rib museum, honoring not just the lavish cuts of beef on the plate but what they symbolize: a lost dining culture of accessible, midcentury abundance.

This notion is particularly powerful at Christmastime, when consumers buy 70 percent of all prime rib sold in the United States in a given year, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. The stockpiling and flash-freezing of these cuts starts back in May. All summer, as grocery stores are selling mostly burgers for the backyard grill, the beef industry is already thinking about the biggest-ticket sale of the year: December’s standing roast.

“We see on holidays and special occasions the times when the kind of longer traditions and deeper histories of how we relate to food come out in ritual,” said Joshua Specht, the author of “Red Meat Republic” and an associate professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.

“What time of year is it more important to represent that things are going well than Christmas?” he added.

The St. Clair patrons aren’t the only ones indulging in a little nostalgia. Even as steak prices have climbed to an all-time high — and as serious climate and health concerns around beef have arisen — the demand for prime rib has grown over the past 20 years. At Christmas in particular, the magnetism of a rib roast is real, with about 33 million pounds sold during last year’s holiday season.

It may be a dish from the American past, but it is a past that many Americans are eager to revisit.

The popularity of prime rib exploded in the United States after World War II. The United States was the world’s dominant superpower, the economic future looked bright, and beef — which had been rationed for years — was back on the table.

Amy Bentley, a professor of food studies at New York University and the author of “Eating for Victory,” called the cut “a powerful symbol of abundance.”

“That big roast in the middle with the side dishes was a symbol of a meal that was fit for Americans,” she said. “‘Freedom From Want’ was Norman Rockwell’s way of describing it.”

A print ad from the American Meat Institute in the mid-1940s connected those ideas quite literally. Under a photo of a raw standing rib roast on a crimson background, the text read, “This is not just a piece of meat … This is a symbol of man’s desire, his will to survive.” Published in Life magazine, the mass-market bible of white, middle-class America, the campaign was seen by millions.

The gendered nature of that early pitch language found its way onto the menus of the prime-rib restaurants that proliferated in the 1950s and 1960s — places where you could get “Paul Bunyan’s Cut” or the “King Henry VIII Cut,” or, for less hungry diners, the “Queen Cut” or “Ladies Slice.”

Lawry’s the Prime Rib, which still offers the “Diamond Jim Brady Cut,” was among the first of these restaurants, opening its original Los Angeles location in 1938. House of Prime Rib in San Francisco followed in 1949; the Prime Rib in Portland, Ore., opened in 1954; and the Prime Rib (no relation) in Baltimore opened in 1965.

Prime rib didn’t just meet you where you lived; it also welcomed you on vacation, especially in Las Vegas. A loss leader and a billboard food for nearly every casino on the Strip, prime rib became the perfect dish for a town branding itself as the vacationland of middle-class luxury.

Even well into the 1990s, a prime-rib dinner at some Las Vegas restaurants would still cost less than $10. Until just a few years ago, Jerry’s Famous Coffee Shop, which opened in 1954 at the Nugget Casino, served prime rib 24 hours a day. It’s not available at 4 a.m. anymore, but an eight-ounce portion can still be had at a more reasonable hour for just $19.99.

And of course there were the innumerable blue-collar restaurants, particularly in the upper Midwest, of the sort St. Clair conjures.

“I think those places were a bit like — and I don’t mean this in a bad way — a bowling alley,” said Nick Kokonas, an owner of the Alinea restaurant group, which runs St. Clair. “People would go bowling in the community, and it wasn’t so much about the game as it was seeing all your neighbors and drinking the beers and having conversations and mindless fun — and in a good way.”

If St. Clair evokes the bowling alley of midcentury prime-rib nation, the Grill, at the Seagram Building, is its high temple of Manhattan modernism.

Originally opened in 1959 as the Four Seasons, and resurrected by Major Food Group under the new name in 2017, the space was designed by Philip Johnson with soaring ceilings and creamy French-walnut paneling. At various moments in the 1960s, you could find a Jackson Pollock hanging on the wall and Jackie Kennedy tucking in for lunch.

For Mario Carbone, a co-owner of Major Food Group, prime rib felt intrinsic to the space.

“I think you’d be hard pressed to find a better sort of culinary representation of that period than this dish,” Mr. Carbone said. “Which made it obvious for us to serve it — the pomp and circumstance.”

Part of that pomp, aside from the $95 price tag, is a trolley custom-built in Brooklyn, which is wheeled up to the table by one of the Grill’s two dedicated carvers, who then slices portions to order.

“It’s moves like that, and pieces in a dining room like that, that help us really tell the story to the guests,” Mr. Carbone said.

The story being referenced in that prime rib at the Grill, though, is a story of American economic optimism and surety. And in the early 1970s, that story began to shift.

The price of beef was so high by then that boycotts and protests were organized against grocery stores. In the opening sequence of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” Mary Richards famously rolled her eyes at the label of a meat package before tossing it into her cart. By 1973, Curtis Mayfield sang in “Future Shock” about “the price of the meat / Higher than the dope in the street,” and President Richard M. Nixon had announced government-imposed price ceilings on beef.

A few years later, in 1976, per capita beef consumption in the United States peaked at about 90 pounds a year, and it has been going down ever since. Today, that figure is about 60 pounds per person a year, according to the U.S.D.A., though in the Midwest, the region that consumes the most beef in the country, that figure is higher historically.

Many factors are likely to have contributed to the decline: increased awareness of health risks, the rise of environmental concerns about raising cattle and the changing demographics of the American eating public. But it also coincides with the diminishing of the middle class in many American places where prime rib holds the most sway.

“That is a time when there’s a breakdown of a certain kind of manhood and a certain kind of economic man,” Prof. Specht said. “There’s a phase change in the economy, and that coincides with a change in the place of the male breadwinner. To be a successful man is to eat steak. And that breaks down in the ’70s.”

The residual effects of that notion may still be evident today. A recent study published in the journal Nutrients showed that half of all the beef consumed in the United States on a given day is eaten by just 12 percent of the population. And members of that 12 percent were most likely to be white men between the ages of 50 and 65.

To the chef Angie Mar, though, that formulation never made sense. The granddaughter of Chinese immigrants, she grew up in Seattle, eating prime rib not only on Christmas but every Sunday for family dinner. “There’s something that’s really wonderful about seeing it carved,” she said. She now serves prime rib every Thursday at her Manhattan restaurant Le B.

“For food to have a gender association to it, I find to be so ridiculously American,” she said. “Great food is great food. And it brings all people to the table.”

When it comes to the price of beef, the early ’70s have nothing on today. A grocery advertisement in The New York Times on Dec. 20, 1973, offered U.S.D.A. choice rib roast at $1.29 per pound. In 2023 dollars, that’s $8.59 a pound. In many places around the country today, it is hard to find a prime rib for twice that price.

Thomas Dobbels is not especially worried, even though he is in the beef business. For 18 years, he has owned Sages Meat Market in Oswego, Ill., a far west suburb of Chicago about 50 miles from the St. Clair.

“Nobody asks about price,” said Mr. Dobbels, who grew up on a farm in western Illinois before getting a Ph.D. in meat science from Kansas State University. “They’re just like, I want the good stuff. I think people save up for the holidays.”

At least one customer this year ordered an entire rack of rib roast, about a 20-pound cut, which at Sages’s current price of $31.99 a pound for U.S.D.A. prime grade pencils out to more than $600.

“I think there’s got to be some connection to the past and some connection to the family,” Mr. Dobbels said. “The meal where we’re all sitting around the table is one thing that can really bring it back home. So I think that meal’s always going to be there, especially on the holidays. There’s a division happening in this country. But obviously there’s a lot of people who like to do things the old way.”

Chris Durkin, who had dinner with his wife and two other couples at the St. Clair Supper Club that brisk night, felt a similar pull.

“You want to light it up at least once for the holidays,” he said. “We’re eating less and less beef now as we get older. So that was definitely a splurge.”

Mr. Durkin was raised in the west Chicago suburbs in the ’60s and grew up going to exactly the kind of restaurant the St. Clair brings back to life, as had the friends he was dining with.

“All three couples, we all grew up going to Wisconsin for vacations, going to supper clubs,” he said. “You don’t get that type of feel much anywhere anymore.”

When you indulge in prime rib today, he said, “You’re almost on vacation in a different time.”

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