How Stale Sandwiches Helped Save New York's 19th Century Drinking Establishments

Stale sandwich, anyone?
Stale sandwich, anyone?
Image by agoss, Pixabay

As the saying goes, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” In July 2020, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the bars and restaurants of New York would not be able to sell alcohol to customers who were not also purchasing food. It was a blow to establishments already fighting an uphill battle to recover from the financial ruin of the coronavirus pandemic. But it was far from the first struggle of its kind: New York's bars have an impressive history of employing creative strategies for getting around limitations—including, in the late 1800s, serving sandwiches of dubious edibility in order to comply with restrictions on liquor service.

In 1896, the formidable force to be reckoned with was State Senator John Raines. His liquor tax law intended to reduce alcohol consumption in New York, and had the support of Theodore Roosevelt, then New York City's police commissioner, who was cracking down on vice within the city. The Raines Law prohibited liquor sales on Sundays, except in hotels. Since Sunday was the busiest day for sales for many of the city’s bars (due in part to the fact that many city residents worked six-day weeks, making Sunday the only day they could enjoy a pint), the loss promised to be substantial for the owners of alcohol-serving establishments—so they wasted no time in brainstorming ways around the law.

Legally, a hotel was defined as an establishment with a restaurant and at least 10 rooms, and over the next few months, the proprietors of more than 1000 saloons turned their businesses into saloon-hotels, a change that enabled them to serve liquor with meals seven days a week at all hours. (In many cases, the makeshift rooms in these so-called Raines Law hotels were rented out to prostitutes [PDF]. As The New York Times described in April 1896 [PDF], any guest of these establishments could procure the liquor of his choosing on Sundays, as long as a meal order was placed prior to the order for alcohol.

But what actually constituted a meal? As one Brooklyn assistant district attorney told police captains, a cracker was not “a complete meal in itself, but a sandwich is.” The New York Times article reiterated that a sandwich qualified as an acceptable meal, but also noted that, “The question of consumption of the food ordered was not seriously considered in its relation to the demands for excise refreshments; in fact the procuring of drinks was simply made subordinate to a formal order for ‘a meal,’ and this was gauged simply by the will of the patron.”

And in this, barkeeps found another loophole: The Raines legislation was focused around the ordering of food, but did not require that that food actually be eaten—so the same food could theoretically be served over and over if a patron left it unconsumed.

The resulting victuals became known as Raines sandwiches. According to playwright Eugene O’Neill, they were “old desiccated ruin[s] of dust-laden bread and mummified ham or cheese which only the drunkest yokel from the sticks” would actually eat. Also on the menu in some establishments were sandwiches that were actually made of rubber, or even brick sandwiches, which Jacob Riis wrote “[consisted] of two pieces of bread with a brick between … set out on the counter, in derision of the state law which forbids the serving of drinks without ‘meals.’”

Unfortunately for the Raines hotel proprietors, their brilliant workarounds eventually came to an end. In 1905, the Committee of Fourteen [PDF] was founded as a citizens' association to ensure the closure of the hotels, which they believed were a cause of the growth of prostitution in the city. The committee organized on-site investigations of the “hotels,” and by 1911, most of the Raines Law hotels had closed, taking their moldy sandwiches with them. The Raines Law would remain in effect until it was repealed in 1923.

New York has changed a lot in the last hundred years, but the plucky spirit of business owners has stayed the same. The historical tenacity of NYC’s businesses has shown that they are willing to do everything they possibly can to make the best of a bad situation—even if it sometimes meant serving up some rather revolting sandwiches.

10 Reusable Gifts for Your Eco-Friendliest Friend

Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.

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By this point, your eco-friendly pal probably has a reusable water bottle that accompanies them everywhere and some sturdy grocery totes that keep their plastic-bag count below par. Here are 10 other sustainable gift ideas that’ll help them in their conservation efforts.

1. Reusable Produce Bags; $13

No more staticky plastic bags.Naturally Sensible/Amazon

The complimentary plastic produce bags in grocery stores aren’t great, but neither is having all your spherical fruits and vegetables roll pell-mell down the checkout conveyor belt. Enter the perfect alternative: mesh bags that are nylon, lightweight, and even machine-washable.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Animal Tea Infusers; $16

Nothing like afternoon tea with your tiny animal friends.DecorChic/Amazon

Saying goodbye to disposable tea bags calls for a quality tea diffuser, and there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t be shaped like an adorable animal. This “ParTEA Pack” includes a hippo, platypus, otter, cat, and owl, which can all hang over the edge of a glass or mug. (In other words, you won’t have to fish them out with your fingers or dirty a spoon when your loose leaf is done steeping.)

Buy it: Amazon

3. Rocketbook Smart Notebook; $25

Typing your notes on a tablet or laptop might save trees, but it doesn’t quite capture the feeling of writing on paper with a regular pen. The Rocketbook, on the other hand, does. After you’re finished filling a page with sketches, musings, or whatever else, you scan it into the Rocketbook app with your smartphone, wipe it clean with the microfiber cloth, and start again. This one also comes with a compatible pen, but any PILOT FriXion pens will do.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Food Huggers; $13

"I'm a hugger!"Food Huggers/Amazon

It’s hard to compete with the convenience of plastic wrap or tin foil when it comes to covering the exposed end of a piece of produce or an open tin can—and keeping those leftovers in food storage containers can take up valuable space in the fridge. This set of five silicone Food Huggers stretch to fit over a wide range of circular goods, from a lidless jar to half a lemon.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Swiffer Mop Pads; $15

For floors that'll shine like the top of the Chrysler Building.Turbo Microfiber/Amazon

Swiffers may be much less unwieldy than regular mops, but the disposable pads present a problem to anyone who likes to keep their trash output to a minimum. These machine-washable pads fasten to the bottom of any Swiffer WetJet, and the thick microfiber will trap dirt and dust instead of pushing it into corners. Each pad lasts for at least 100 uses, so you’d be saving your eco-friendly friend quite a bit of money, too.

Buy it: Amazon

6. SodaStream for Sparkling Water; $69

A fondness for fizzy over flat water doesn’t have to mean buying it bottled. Not only does the SodaStream let you make seltzer at home, but it’s also small enough that it won’t take up too much precious counter space. SodaStream also sells flavor drops to give your home-brewed beverage even more flair—this pack from Amazon ($25) includes mango, orange, raspberry, lemon, and lime.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Washable Lint Roller; $13

Roller dirty.iLifeTech/Amazon

There’s a good chance that anyone with a pet (or just an intense dislike for lint) has lint-rolled their way through countless sticky sheets. iLifeTech’s reusable roller boasts “the power of glue,” which doesn’t wear off even after you’ve washed it. Each one also comes with a 3-inch travel-sized version, so you can stay fuzz-free on the go.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Countertop Compost Bin; $23

Like a tiny Tin Man for your table.Epica/Amazon

Even if you keep a compost pile in your own backyard, it doesn’t make sense to dash outside every time you need to dump a food scrap. A countertop compost bin can come in handy, especially if it kills odors and blends in with your decor. This 1.3-gallon pail does both. It’s made of stainless steel—which matches just about everything—and contains an activated-charcoal filter that prevents rancid peels and juices from stinking up your kitchen.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Fabric-Softening Dryer Balls; $17

Also great for learning how to juggle without breaking anything.Smart Sheep

Nobody likes starchy, scratchy clothes, but some people might like blowing through bottles of fabric softener and boxes of dryer sheets even less. Smart Sheep is here to offer a solution: wool dryer balls. Not only do they last for more than 1000 loads, they also dry your laundry faster. And since they don’t contain any chemicals, fragrances, or synthetic materials, they’re a doubly great option for people with allergies and/or sensitive skin.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Rechargeable Batteries; $40

Say goodbye to loose batteries in your junk drawer.eneloop/Amazon

While plenty of devices are rechargeable themselves, others still require batteries to buzz, whir, and change the TV channel—so it’s good to have some rechargeable batteries on hand. In addition to AA batteries, AAA batteries, and a charger, this case from Panasonic comes with tiny canisters that function as C and D batteries when you slip the smaller batteries into them.

Buy it: Amazon

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Why Neatly Carve Your Meat When You Can Shred It Like a Bear With These Handy Meat Shredders?

It's bear-y satisfying.
It's bear-y satisfying.
BBQ Butler/Amazon

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Unlike animal claws, our spindly fingers aren’t particularly well-suited to ripping through large hunks of meat, even those cooked to fall-off-the-bone perfection. Though the market has plenty of manual and electric knives to carve or slice it, shredding is a different beast entirely. A couple of forks can work in a pinch, and hand mixers have also proven useful. But the task really calls for a device of its own—something as sharp and resilient as bear paws.

Enter Bear Paws, the six-pronged, handheld shredders that’ll help you produce the most mouthwatering heap of pulled pork, barbecued chicken, or whatever other shredded protein you’re serving for dinner. The devices can handle temperatures as hot as 475°F, so you don’t have to wait for your meat to cool down before you start shredding.

Bear Paws can solve other culinary conundrums, too. When you’re cooking something especially large, it can be difficult to transfer it from pan or grill to platter; you can’t exactly pick up a searing-hot turkey with your hands, and trying to balance it between serving forks or spatulas seems ill-advised. Sticking a Bear Paw in either end does the trick. You can also stick one Bear Paw in the turkey (or watermelon) to keep it steady while you slice it with a knife, much like you’d do with a fork while cutting something smaller on your plate.

And after you’re finished, you can toss your Bear Paws in the dishwasher or wash them by hand—an especially easy task, since there aren’t any hard-to-clean holes, cracks, or hinges.

Bear Paws are available to purchase from The Grommet ($12) or Amazon ($13).