Oh, there’s nothing halfway
About the Iowa way to treat you,
When we treat you,
Which we may not do at all.
–“Iowa Stubborn,” Meredith Willson, The Music Man
On April 25, I will be giving a book review at the Fairhope Public Library. The subject of my review is The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived: A True Story of My Family, by Tom Shroder. The book is, at least in part, a biography of Shroder’s grandfather, MacKinlay Kantor, author of hundreds of short stories, essays, poems, and articles and 40 books, most of them novels, including Andersonville, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1956, and Glory for Me, which was the basis for the film, The Best Years of Our Lives, which won seven Academy Awards in 1946, became the highest-grossing film since Gone with the Wind, and is often ranked among the greatest movies of all time.
It would be impossible, I think, to read this book without wanting to read some of Kantor’s actual works, but that is not an easy task, as Kantor’s lush style has fallen out of favor with a tl;dr generation. The libraries in Baldwin County, collectively, offer only Andersonville and one other book, plus DVDs of The Best Years of Our Lives and a couple of other films based on Kantor works. As a result, I’ve had to order several of the books, used, from online bookstores, but fortunately some other publications have been digitized and made available online. One of these is Author’s Choice, a 1944 collection of 40 short stories published between 1922 and 1944. In the story “The Woman on the Roof,” published in the Chicago Daily News on April 24, 1929, I ran across this passage:
What in the world is “honon steak”? I resorted to Google, which helpfully suggested that perhaps I actually wanted to search for “Hunan steak”? (My husband made the same suggestion, but I considered this unlikely for the period.) When I firmly insisted that, no, what I really wanted to find was “honon steak” and nothing else, Google served up three results. One of them was the digitized document I already had. Another was an ad in the Daily Iowan for Sunday, March 24, 1929 (the student newspaper at the University of Iowa in Iowa City):
Whatever “honon steak” is, it’s more expensive than pork. The third hit confirms that it is beef. It was found in the June 13, 1921, issue of the Aberdeen-Angus Journal.
The accompanying article explains that this was the menu of a dinner served to breeders attending a cattle sale in Webster City, Iowa. This was evidently quite an occasion: the article reports that:
Cars were on hand in sufficient numbers to serve every desire of the visiting breeders, those who desired were taken to the fair grounds and returned at pleasure. At the close of the sale the company of cars was at the pavilion door awaiting the pleasure of the breeders. “Anywhere in particular you want to go,” asked the driver. If no chocice [sic] were designated a joy ride about the city was indulged in, all cars winding up at the Chamber rooms at 5:30, where the Young People’s Society of the United Brethren church did themselves splendid credit in serving a delightful four course dinner to the Journal’s guests, 225 covers being laid. Beautiful souvenir programs were placed at the plates.
During the seating of the visitors and all during the dinner, there was a variety of musical entertainment. The performers included Georgianna Hahne, piano, and Winnifred Hahne, drums and traps. These were presumably relatives (wife? daughters?) of Fred Hahne, editor and publisher of the Journal.
This is not insignificant: Fred Hahne was also the publisher of the Webster City Daily News, and exactly one week after this issue of the Journal was published, on July 20, 1921, Effie McKinlay Kantor would become the editor of the Daily News, having secured the employment of her son, MacKinlay Kantor, age 17, as part of the bargain. Kantor describes this experience in his commentary on the first story in the Author’s Choice collection, “Purple,” his first published story, which won a Des Moines Register short story contest and was published in that paper in 1922. Obviously, he was in the right place and at the right time to pick up reference to this entrée.
So I am no closer to knowing what “honon steak” is, but, despite the initial reference (in a story set in Chicago), I believe it may be an Iowa delicacy (certainly at least a Midwest thing) and perhaps a 1920s specialty. Possibly the University of Iowa (which has a collection of Kantor’s papers) or the Iowa State Historical Society can shed more light; I will pursue the enquiry.