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Where's the Beef?

In Vienna, and boiled the old-fashioned way.

Jun 11, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 37 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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Shoulder cut of boiled beef


Victorino Matus

In March I flew 4,464 miles to eat boiled beef. I admit this sounds absurd. After all, couldn’t I boil the meat at home? And why even bother boiling when I can braise, roast, or grill? Who would do such a thing to beef? 

The Austrians, that’s who—and they’ve been doing it for a long time. 

At the turn of the last century, during the height of the Habsburg Empire, the Austrians (and in particular the Viennese) transformed boiled beef into a staple of the imperial kitchen, a meal fit for a kaiser. Indeed, Emperor Franz Joseph ate it almost every day of his life. It’s called Tafelspitz: a narrow cut from the rump section of a cow boiled in a rich broth with vegetables. The broth is served first, followed by the Tafelspitz, cooked tender with an array of accompaniments such as spinach, roasted potatoes, and, most important, horseradish (freshly grated or blended with applesauce or in a breaded cream sauce called Semmelkren).

The manner in which the boiled beef was served evolved into an elaborate process. In the February 1953 issue of Gourmet, Joseph Wechsberg detailed the experience in his essay later titled “Tafelspitz for the Hofrat” and, by Wechsberg’s estimate, Tafelspitz was but one of 24 different kinds of cuts that could be ordered. The others had names less easily pronounced, such as HieferschwanzlZwerchried,Mittleres KügerlAusgelöstes, and Schwarzes Scherzl.

At the most famous Tafelspitz restaurant in Vienna, Meissl & Schadn, a hulking figure named Heinrich supervised the dining room. “The depth of Heinrich’s bow,” writes Wechsberg, “depended upon the guest’s social standing, his taste for, and his knowledge of, boiled beef, and his seniority. It took a man from twenty-five to thirty years to earn the full deep-bow.”

As for the service:

Now the waiter would step forward, lift the cover off the silver plate, and perform the “presentation” of the meat. .  .  . The waiter would serve the meat on a hot plate, place it on the table in front of the guest, make a step back, and glance at Heinrich. Then the guest, in turn, would glance at Heinrich.

There followed a minute heavy with suspense. From his command post, Heinrich would review the table with a short, sweeping glance, taking in the meat, the garniture, the accessories, the setting, the position of the chair and table. He would give a slight nod of approval to the waiter, and to the guest. Only then would a genuine habitué start to eat.

Of course, Wechsberg had been writing about the Tafelspitz scene long before World War II. By 1953, it was fading fast, leaving Wechsberg to lament that 

today, most Viennese restaurants serve Rindfleisch or Beinfleisch, without any specification. .  .  . It is often tough and dry, and served by ignorant waiters who recommend to their customers expensive “outside” dishes, such as Styrian pullet or imported lobster. The waiters are more interested in the size of their tips than in the contentment of the guest’s palate.

A few Viennese establishments serve Tafelspitz to this day. But could the meal and the service be anywhere near as lavish as Wechsberg described it some 60 years ago? Thanks to the auspices of the Vienna Tourist Board and the Hotel Sacher, I was able to return to the imperial city for a few days to find out.

During 1993-94, I studied at the University of Vienna—although I probably spent more time hanging out at cafés and the wineries on the outskirts of town called Heurigers. (I’d always found it easy to zone out during lectures in English; in German it was easier, so much so that I didn’t realize my theology class was broken into two segments with a bathroom break in-between. For a half-semester, I was skipping out during the intermission and returning the next week completely lost. I dropped that class.)

But my impression from that year abroad was that the Viennese are by nature resistant to change. The only American fast food franchise I had seen was McDonald’s (and I knew all the different locations). On Sundays the city shut down. Not just liquor stores, mind you, but almost every store—even supermarkets and pharmacies. During a floor meeting in my dormitory, the students voted down the suggestion of purchasing a microwave oven because, as one Austrian girl put it, “microwaves are for the lazy.”

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