A History of Steak Diane, Ovid, How To Flambé and Why One should Hang a Lamb Chop In The Window

This illustration of Ovid's story about Diana and Actaeon is by Giuseppe Cesari (1606); notice that Actaeon's metamorphosis has already begun.

According to Ovid, while Actaeon was out hunting, he inadvertently came upon the virgin goddess as she bathed in her secret grotto. To punish him for seeing her naked, the goddess sprinkled Actaeon with water, magically transforming him into a stag. The unfortunate youth was torn to pieces by his own hounds.

Goddess of wild animals and the hunt, the sister of Apollo, Diana was praised for her strength, beauty, athletic prowess, and hunting skills. She was also deemed a protectorate of woman and became associated with chastity, marriage, and fertility.

The myth of Diana (the Greek goddess of the moon and hunt, originally named Artemis) and Actaeon (a Theban prince) is recounted in Ovid's first - century "Metamorphoses". Metamorphoses is a narrative poem that describes the creation and history of the world through the metamorphoses of it's protagonists. Completed in 8 AD, The recurring theme, as with nearly all of Ovid's work, is that of love — personal love or love personified in the figure of Amor (Cupid). The other Roman gods are repeatedly perplexed, humiliated, and made ridiculous by Amor, an otherwise relatively minor god of the pantheon who is the closest thing this epic has to a hero. Apollo comes in for particular ridicule as Ovid shows how irrational love can confound the god of pure reason. The poem inverts the accepted order, elevating humans and human passions while making the gods and their desires and conquests objects of base humor. The Metamorphosis retells 250 Roman myths. Ovid's influence on Western art and literature is a writer's dream legacy.
Ovid was a major inspiration for Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton and other of the world's great authors.

Shakespeare alludes to the story, as Orsino speaks of his love:

O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first,
Methought she purged the air of pestilence!
That instant was I turn'd into a hart;
And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,
E'er since pursue me.

Twelfth Night 1.1.18-22

Had I the power that some say Dian had,
Thy temples should be planted presently
With horns, as was Actaeon's; and the hounds
Should drive upon thy new-transformed limbs,
Unmannerly intruder as thou art!

Titus Andronicus 2.3.61

And that my fellow gastronomes and lovers, brings us to Steak Diane on Valentine's day.

In the 19th century sauces made “a la Diane” were dedicated to Diana as an accompaniment to venison. Sauce a la Diane was composed of cream, truffles, and ample amounts of black pepper. The first mention of Sauce Diane, (as opposed to a la Diane), comes from Auguste Escoffier in 1907. He added hard cooked egg white to the a la Diane formula.

As with Eggs Benedict , New York City appears to be the best candidate for the location of the creation of Steak Diane. Jane Nickerson’s article “Steak Worthy of the Name” (New York Times, January 25, 1953) suggests three possible sources in New York City as originators: The Drake Hotel, the Sherry- Netherland Hotel and the Colony Restaurant. The best suggestion is that it originated with Beniamino Schiavon (aka "Nino"), from Padua, Italy. He worked at the Drake Hotel in New York City. The earliest print references found to date not only point to Nino, but talk about the recipe being wheedled out of him by Perle Mesta who was appointed by President Truman as ambassador to Luxembourg from 1949 to 1953, known as Madam and The Hostess with the Mostes. Perle is such an interesting character that I will digress from Steak Diane for a moment.

In the 1930s, Perle Mesta became involved in the National Woman's Party. She lobbied for the Equal Rights Amendment, first as a Republican and then, after changing party affiliation in 1940, as a Democrat.

She moved back to Washington, D.C., about 1940 and quickly became one of the capital's premier party hostesses. The guest list for her extravagant soirees included senators and congressmen of both parties, world leaders, Supreme Court justices, movie stars, foreign ambassadors, military leaders and White House personnel.

A Christian Scientist, Mesta didn't drink alcohol though she did serve alcohol at her parties. She claimed though that her parties gave her the same elation liquor gave other people.

She was an early supporter of Truman, serving on the Democrats' finance committee during his 1948 campaign and then acting as co-chairman of his inaugural ball. In 1949, Truman named her minister to Luxembourg. She was the first to hold the post -- and the third woman appointed to a foreign diplomatic post. She served until 1953, becoming the first woman to receive Luxembourg's highest honor, the Grand Cross of the Crown of Oak. As minister, she became famed again for her hostess skills. She threw "GI parties" for servicemen and women stationed in Europe.

She also became well known for her title. When asked how she wanted to be addressed, she replied, "Call me Madam Minister." The line was shortened to "Call Me Madam," which became the name of Irving Berlin's musical inspired by her life. The musical featured the song "The Hostess with the Mostes". Mesta was amused when the nickname stuck to her. Starring Ethel Merman, the show was a 1950-52 Broadway hit and was adapted into a 1954 Academy Award-winning film Call Me Madam.

After leaving Luxembourg, Mesta spent much of the next decade traveling the world. She met with the heads of 19 different governments, even touring Soviet Russia. She narrowly escaped death in 1955 after getting caught up in a riot between Communist and anti-Communist factions in Saigon, Vietnam.

In 1960, she published her biography, "Perle: My Story." She continued to give lavish parties into the early 1970s.
"Hang a lamb chop in the window," was the advice Perle Mesta gave those who wanted to make a place for themselves in Washington D.C. Lamb Chops or not, one thing is for sure. Steak Diane was the rage in the 50’s and 60’s, especially in New York. A hot culinary trend at the time in upscale restaurants was dishes that could be flamboyantly prepared tableside on a cart. We're talking about the headwaiter or maitre d' wheeling a food trolley to your table and, before your very eyes, deftly performing acts of slicing, dicing, de-boning, saucing or flambéing. Steak Diane theatrics came from the flambéing of the cognac used to make the sauce. One suspects that our current culture's fear of personal injury lawyers, insurance adjusters, non-professional waitstaff and danger in general has doused table side flambéing forever. The Turtle Restaurant chef flambés in the kitchen under the vent-a-hood.

Fortunately, flambéing is not just for show or there would be no reason to continue performing the technique. Igniting the brandy in the recipe intensifies the flavor of the finished sauce by caramelizing the sugars or carbohydrates. During caramelization, the intense heat causes the sugars to undergo a series of chemical changes. The most important of these is to develop mouth watering flavor. Caramelization requires temperatures in excess of 300 degrees.

Here are the secrets:

  • Start with a dry piece of meat. Use a paper towel to dry off the meat. Water is the enemy of caramelization
  • Use high heat. Preheat your pan or grill and make sure it’s hot before putting the meat on. If the heat is too low, moisture will collect in the pan and you’ll steam the meat which is what the British are famous for and not yummy.
  • Use a heavy skillet. The heavier the better. This helps the pan retain heat when adding room temperature meat. Cast iron or heavy stainless steel.
  • Bring the meat to room temperature. This will keep the pan from cooling too much when you first put in the meat. Always remember that 41-140º F is known as the danger zone. Foods that are exposed to this range for more than four hours may not be safe to eat. Don’t let meat sit out all day- just let it warm up a bit before you intend to cook it.
  • Balance the heat and time. Balance the heat and time so that the meat has the perfect amount of caramelization when it’s just done inside. Tip: For thick pieces of meat - start by caramelizing in a pan or on the grill on high heat and then finish it in the oven (350F).
  • More surface area. The larger the surface area, the more room there is for caramelization. Butterfly cuts like chicken breasts or pork loin to create a larger area to brown, this creates a flatter surface so the meat caramelizes evenly.
  • Flambé. The food is topped with a liquor, usually brandy, cognac, or rum and lit afire. The volatile alcohol vapor burns with a blue flame, leaving behind the faint flavor of the liquor or liqueur.

    Only liquors and liqueurs with a high alcohol content can be used to flame foods. A higher proof will ignite more readily. Beer, champagne, and most table wines will not work.

    Liquors and liqueurs that are 80-proof are considered the best choices for flambé. Those above 120-proof are highly flammable and considered dangerous. NEVER light the pan before you are finished pouring or the flame could follow the stream of alcohol up into the bottle causing an explosion severely burning the cook and bystanders.

    The liquor must be warmed to about 130F, yet still remain well under the boiling point, before adding to the pan. (Boiling will burn off the alcohol, and it will not ignite.)

    Always remove the pan from the heat source before adding the liquor to avoid burning yourself. Vigorously shaking the pan usually extinguishes the flame, but keep a pot lid nearby in case you need to smother the flames. The alcohol vapor generally burns off by itself in a matter of seconds.

You can apply these techniques to anything that benefits from caramelization. Now that you know those secrets, I’m going to leave you with a tip. NEVER discard the brown bits left in the pan after caramelizing meat. The French call this “fond.” I will tell you why I am fond of fond in a future post.