To get a pint under Covid-19 restrictions, we have to buy a ‘substantial meal’, but drinkers in 1900s New York contended with all kinds of regulations and loopholes, writes Donal O’Keeffe
If you’re forced to order a substantial meal so you can have a pint in your post-lockdown local, pray they don’t serve you a Raines Sandwich, an inedible New York snack invented a century ago.
Under Government rules for exiting lockdown, pubs can re-open early, but only if they serve a “substantial meal” – priced €9 - to customers consuming alcohol on their premises. In New York, at the turn of the last century, saloon owners got around not-dissimilar restrictions in the most imaginative way possible.
Obliged to serve a sandwich with each drink, the bartender duly served a sandwich with each drink. That is to say, the bartender served the same sandwich with each drink.
Every drink order was accompanied by a sandwich, and as soon as that sandwich touched the table beside your beer or whiskey, it was whipped away and served up with the next drink order, and the next, and the next. Sometimes the same sandwich would be recycled for a week or more.
It was known as the Raines Sandwich, and playwright Eugene O’Neill described it as “an old dessicated ruin of dust-laden bread and mummified ham or cheese". Sometimes the sandwich was made of rubber, and sometimes the joke became so absurd that bartenders presented a brick sandwiched between slices of bread.
In 1896 the Raines Law, authored by John Raines, was passed by the New York state legislature. Nominally a liquor tax, its real purpose was to tackle what Republican legislators deemed the scandal of public drunkenness. New York City had, at the time, some 8,000 saloons, the worst of them described in Richard Zacks’ “Island of Vice” (2012) as “dimly lit, foul-smelling, rickety-chaired, stale-beer dives” catering to “vagrants, shipless sailors, incompetent thieves, [and] aging streetwalkers”.
The Raines Law was designed to kill such joints, tripling the annual liquor licence, and increasing it ten-fold for beer-only taverns. Raines raised the drinking age from 16 to 18, and did away with saloons’ best promotional tool, the free lunch. Saloons were already prohibited from opening on Sundays, but the police usually turned a blind eye. After all, labourers mostly worked six days a week, with Sunday their only full day for drinking, and Sunday was the most profitable day for saloons. Raines ordered taverns keep their curtains open, making it difficult for the cops to ignore Sabbath boozing.
The ambitious young law-and-order president of the New York police commission, Theodore Roosevelt, championed the Raines Law; the future US president predicting it would solve “whatever remained of the problem of Sunday closing”. Raines was favoured mainly by middle-class Protestants who believed it would improve public morality, and it was despised by poor Irish and German immigrant labourers fond of a pint.
A Republican law, the Raines Law contained a loophole to excuse the rich. Sunday being most servants’ day off too, wealthy people tended to dine on the Sabbath in swanky hotel restaurants which served alcohol. Rather than upset the well-off, Raines allowed lodging houses with ten or more bedrooms to serve drinks with meals seven days a week.
Spotting their opportunity, saloon owners transformed their “stale-beer dives” virtually overnight, throwing tablecloths over pool tables, and turning tiny attic and basement spaces into alleged bedrooms. It was then that the loosest possible definition of a “substantial meal” became the Raines Sandwich.
With the police and courts satisfied that the letter of the law was observed, so-called Raines hotels sprang up all over the city, and, to the consternation of moral crusaders, closing time and Sunday closing were effectively abolished. Worse, the easy availability of cheap beds caused an alarming spike in casual sex and prostitution.
The state legislature was hastily forced to pass clarifying legislation, but confusion reigned for years, until, in 1907, the New York Supreme Court ruled decisively that Sunday lunch must be ordered and served in good faith for accompanying liquor to be legal, effectively doubling the price of a Sunday drink.
A decade later, Prohibition became nationwide law, as Darrell Hartman writes in an excellent article on atlasobscura.com, “putting an end to such quaint half-measures as the Raines sandwich and replacing the Raines hotel with the speakeasy”. In Ireland in 2020, as we exit lockdown quicker than expected, pubs may reopen early if they serve a €9 “substantial meal” with alcohol, to customers who can only stay for 105 minutes. Some of us have put more thought into this than an 1896 New York bartender might: Is a toasted sandwich a substantial meal if it costs €9? Can I book a table for four for 105 minutes and order one meal between us? Can my girlfriend then book the same table, for the same four but in her name for the next 105 minutes?
More seriously, how much food waste will be generated by untouched meals thrown out by pubs pretending to be restaurants? Perhaps a solution might be for pubs to serve €9 cold plate meals in sealed containers. That way, unopened meals could be donated safely to homeless charities.
Mind you, some publicans, not unlike Raines sandwich merchants, would doubtless happily recycle uneaten meals till the cows come home, making a small fortune reselling the same dinner over and over, until some poor weirdo not out to get as hammered as possible in 105 minutes eventually ate the damned thing.
In the meantime, enjoy your substantial meal.