Booze and turn-of-the-20th-century blue laws in New York conspired to create the world’s worst pub grub. Sometimes it was made of rubber, sometimes a brick between two slices of stale bread. And even when its components were arguably edible, consumption could get you in trouble — not just gastrointestinally.
The so-called “Raines sandwich,” named after the law that inspired it, was “an old desiccated ruin of dust-laden bread and mummified ham or cheese which only the drunkest yokel from the sticks ever regarded as anything but a noisome table decoration,” wrote playwright Eugene O’Neill in “The Iceman Cometh,” which was set in a 1912 New York saloon.
See, this ugliest of appetizers was really just for looks.
Under the state’s Raines law, which passed in 1896, the only businesses that could serve alcohol on Sundays — working folks’ traditional sole day off — were hotels. Even then, potent potables had to come with a meal. In response, bar owners went to creative lengths to change their status, renting out rooms and designing a lip service repast that would fit through a temperance loophole … over and over again.
Muckraking journalist Jacob Riis wrote about a 1902 incident involving a saloon customer who attempted to chow down on his token meal. The kerfuffle ended with no arrests and police returning the sandwich to the bartender, for — one assumes — prompt recirculation.
Thankfully in modern times, finding eats to partner with one’s ale (or vice versa) usually only presents a challenge of choice, and one that rarely involves authorities. Snack standards and regional delicacies have found new life and a fresh audience thanks to evolving tastes and menus offering new twists on traditional “finger food” fare.
Along with the plates of loaded nachos heavy as neutron stars and giant melt-in-mouth soft pretzels, you’ll also find quirkier crops: fried green tomatoes, deep-fried pickles and noshes that speak to the transformative power of pub culture.
I speak, of course, of the much- maligned Brussels sprout.
If childhood turned you off the controversial cabbage cousins, give craft beer a chance to set things right. I promise you won’t have to look far.
“That has got to be one of the most popular appetizers out there right now,” said self-described Colorado Springs beer geek Randy Dipner. “You can get them almost everywhere now. It’s a great appetizer, and it goes really well with almost anything.”
Phantom Canyon head brewer Charles McManus said he understands why the veggies might seem a hard sell. For many diners, they’ve got history.
“Growing up, they were known to be the most hated thing — by people of all ages,” McManus said.
Anyone who’s spent time in taprooms of late, however, knows that today’s sprouts are a breed apart. Phantom Canyon’s version, for example, is roasted with bacon, feta and blue cheeses.
But the Brussels sprout renaissance might be less pub grub revolution than bellwether of our general, cultural bittering, McManus conceded.
“I think that there’s something about that bitter quality. I think American culinary tastes are changing. It’s reflected in beer, with IPAs being such a popular thing,” he said. “I think we’re adjusting to more salty, bitter type things and finding the balance of those.”
So next time someone tells you to eat your Brussels sprouts, just do it.
And if for some reason you regret the decision (which you won’t), remember: At least it’s not a brick sandwich.