Honon Steak Revisited

Last month I wrote about the mystery of “honon steak.” Someone suggested to me that, since this seemed to be an Iowa specialty, I should contact a local historical society for assistance. Accordingly, on May 5, I located a contact form for the State Historical Society of Iowa, which, it turns out, is a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs.

On May 17, I received a reply from Shari S. Stelling, Librarian, at the State Historical Library & Archives in Des Moines. She was also intrigued by the mystery and reported that she had found a few other mentions but “nothing like a description (let alone recipe).” Her search of newspapers in the public domain (dated before 1922) through NewspaperArchive and Chronicling America had turned up a reference in the Spencer Reporter for April 5, 1916, which gave the menu for a Commercial Club Banquet that included “honon steak.” Other references, also banquet menus, were found in the February 23, 1915; January 9, 1917; and March 27, 1917, issues of the Webster City Freeman.

Since all these sightings were from the northwest part of the state, Shari suggested “contacting the Webster City Public Library to see if any of the Webster City community cookbooks in their collection include honon steak,” adding, “Maybe it was a regional favorite” (which was also my assumption). She also recommended contacting the Special Collections department at the Iowa State University library in Ames, which has “a significant cookery/cookbook collection.”

Yesterday I contacted both of those institutions, one via contact form and one via email. To my amazement, I received replies from both of them within hours!

First to respond was Olivia Garrison, Reference Coordinator, Special Collections and University Archives, at the Iowa State University Library. She wrote:

Shari Stelling pointed you to the right place! And the tip about the Webster City Freeman was extremely helpful, because it gave me an idea of where to start looking. Our cookbook collection is extensive and most are not digitized at this time, so it was great to be able to narrow the search down.

Luckily, we have a cookbook published by the Webster City Freeman, originally in 1916 then republished in 1952. And lo and behold, there’s a recipe for Honon Steak!

She attached a scan of the cover and title page of The Famous Old Webster City Cook Book, along with page 13, which has the recipe.

Less than half an hour later, I heard from Ketta Lubberstedt-Arjes, Assistant Director of the Kendall Young Library in Webster City, Iowa. She had found the same cookbook in her library’s collection and also sent scans of the relevant pages. As lagniappe, she included scans of several pages of MacKinlay Kantor’s Webster City, Iowa, by Paul C. Juhl, in which The Famous Old Webster City Cook Book is pictured and its history recounted:

There were actually three versions of the Webster City cookbook. The first, which many called the best, was published in 1900; a second in 1906; and then a third in 1916. The second creation, by the Ladies’ Aid Society of the Webster City Congregational Church, created a bound volume of the version printed in 1906. This was called “Tried and True Recipes of Webster City’s Best Cooks” and expanded on the earlier version. It was this booklet that was reprinted by the Freeman-Journal Publishing Company in 1952.

The Honon Steak recipe itself is not terribly impressive.

That sounds to me an awful lot like a blend of country fried steak (or chicken-fried steak) and pot roast, and I can’t imagine anyone ever considering it an elegant banquet entrée. Moreover, the mystery of “honon” is still unsolved. Still, I am grateful to have gotten this far with the quest. Since Mrs. Joe H. Richard, who provided the recipe, and all the cooks who may have followed it are surely long dead, I suspect this is as far as we will get.

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