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Meeting up, downing meat

Here it is, Saturday night in a packed rental hall in Rosedale, and Mike O'Connor is slinging his cutlery with the precision of a surgeon and working up a sweat.

It's only 9 o'clock. He and his knives must endure until midnight. So must the beef he is cutting for 150 hungry customers.

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O'Connor is a guy who puts the bull in the bull roast, a Maryland tradition dating back more than a century. On this night, he is working a noisy affair hosted in the Lantern Gardens off Philadelphia Road by the Mason-Dixon Rescue Dogs, a group that helps locate lost children and Alzheimer's patients.

He carves and serves slices of beef, rare to well-done, almost nonstop. And if there were a pearl in the realm of the bull roast, it would be the burnt end. These are the crunchy, darkened tips of the beef rounds, upon which people satiate their primitive, carnivorous cravings.

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O'Connor, a three-year veteran of working bull roasts, has the burnt ends piled in a bowl for the taking while the hungry pass before him like communicants in a church service.

Here, the co-star to beef is the oyster. Next to O'Connor at the long serving table is Mike Butka, the oyster server. He's offering five or six on the half shell to a plate, some beauties from Delaware Bay. He, too, falls into a groove, parting the shells with his shucking knife. And he does it barehanded.

"Nah, I don't wear gloves; they slow me down," Butka says. "I've done all right. ... I was born with 11 fingers. Now I have 10."

Local favorite

Texans have their barbecues. New Englanders gather at clambakes, and the riverbank fish fry remains a favorite in the South. Pig roasts, or picks, and corn or crawfish boils also bring people together to overeat, quench their thirst and tell stories. Undoubtedly, there are others.

"The bull roast," says caterer Gina Stratakes, "is strictly a Maryland thing."

"You can go up into Pennsylvania and you say 'bull roast,' and they say, 'What's that?'"

Charles Camp, an author and folklorist, said that he doesn't know anyone who has never attended a Maryland bull roast, "but the source of the term itself remains a mystery. However it got its name, such a ceremony is almost a tribal affair, nourishing also in an emotional way."

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In the latter 19th century, New York City started the rite of the "beefsteak," where pols and their pals gorged on grilled steak, beer and whiskey. The etiquette was rigid, as noted by New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell in his 1939 piece "All You Can Hold for Five Bucks."

Utensils, napkins, and tablecloths were not permitted, Mitchell wrote. Attendees ate with their hands, standing up, sometimes wearing meat-cutter's aprons over their three-piece suits. Clearly lacking in social graces, the beefsteak disappeared around the end of the Depression.

One of the earliest documented bull roasts in Maryland occurred in 1878 when the Maryland Centennial Butchers Association roasted a 1,350-pound ox near Bullneck Creek in what is now Dundalk, Baltimore County historian John McGrain says.

The carcass was maneuvered into the pit with a block and tackle and cooked for nearly six hours, according to McGrain.

Decades ago, Maryland bull roasts were "political strongholds, events where you met neighbors and your political workers," says state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., whose family has seen many.

"Now, a $25 ticket for a bull roast is just not enough to finance a campaign," Curran says. "Instead of the old familiar faces, you see more corporate executives and lobbyists."

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Political bull roasts have not altogether vanished, but they have given way to expensive affairs like $1,000-a-plate fundraisers for television advertising costs and mass mailings.

To Stratakes, co-owner of Sterling Caterers, Maryland's bull roasts have transformed from clubby, male-bonding events - many of them political - to fundraisers for a variety of organizations and a "night out for parents.

"We even have soccer-mom groups who throw bull roasts and have a blast," she says.

Other caterers echo Stratakes. "We do hundreds of them a year ... golf groups, fishing clubs, reunions, rec councils, bars," says Rick Santoni, owner of a catering firm in the Glyndon area of Baltimore County.

Even those closest to nature depend on the venerable bull roast. A nudist group convened near Davidsonville this past summer for a beef soiree.

The hall in Rosedale is a place with a with a low-slung ceiling, filled with the clattering gaming wheel (and another one where mums are the prize), a disc jockey's tunes and the occasional screech or scream when someone thinks they've copped a door prize or hit the 50/50 raffle.

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Plates piled high

The hungry form a line. George Little, a newspaper carrier from Baltimore, piles his plate high with beef, green beans, pasta and cake. For $35, he chows down among friends and supports a worthy cause.

"It's good people, good food, good for the dogs," he says.

Mary Portner, a diminutive woman from Highlandtown, hustles to refill the hot buffet table and tend to other human needs - "More pasta, Mary," "More cake, Mary." She has been working bull roasts for more than a decade.

"Hon, I tell you, they could serve sour beef and dumplings at these bull roasts and people would be happy," Portner says. "It's a place to be with friends and indulge."

O'Connor, the beef man, is a mechanical designer by trade who moonlights for Sterling Caterers. He has cooked 105 pounds of beef round. All of it will be devoured by midnight.

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Butka worries whether the 1,000 oysters will hold out through the evening. He's worked with oysters for more than two decades, the last five years with Sterling Caterers, before that at Faidley's in Baltimore's Lexington Market.

"People always complain that the oysters ain't as big, or as salty, as they used to be," Butka says. "But people keep on eating them." At night's end, a few dozen remain.

Sterling Caterers, which has another, larger, hall in Rosedale, stages bull roasts, or variations of them, with shrimp or crabs, year round. Sometimes, Stratakes says, her company will throw five roasts in one weekend - one Friday night, two Saturday and two Sunday.

Lisa Kakavas, president of the rescue dogs group, says its roast was a smashing success. It was the group's first try at such an event and raised about $3,000 for such expenses as medicine for the rescue dogs and training classes for first responders. The group plans to do another one next year.

"It's a lot of fun," she says. "It's the way to go."

joe.nawrozki@baltsun.com



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