Getting a drink with your lunch used to be a lot worse ...
This year marks the 100th anniversary of American Prohibition, the 13-year period in which alcohol was illegal in the United States. All sorts of classic American icons have their roots in this time period, from the speakeasies of the Jazz Age to the rise of famous mobsters like Al Capone and even NASCAR. While it's unlikely that a sudden resurgence of prohibition will be checked off on anyone's 2020 BINGO cards, it's worth looking at the history of the movement to understand some of the contexts behind it.
So, today we're going to do just that by learning about the Raines Sandwich: one of the most disgusting sandwiches ever and its role in American boozing of the early 20th century.
While the 18th Amendment (which banned the sale and consumption of alcoholic drinks) went into effect during 1920, efforts to curb alcohol consumption in America has stretched back to at least the Civil War. Prohibition advocates saw excessive alcohol consumption as a growing hazard for public decency and fought to prevent bars and saloons from opening in cities. One of the most sweeping pieces of legislation was the 1896 Raines Law, which was passed to put restaurants out of business. Among several other things, it put hard limits on where saloons were allowed to open and made liquor licenses prohibitively expensive in an attempt to prevent new ones from being issued. Additionally, the law cracked down on Sunday drinking, a move that was hugely unpopular seeing as Sunday was the only day off for most workers.
It also resulted in the Raines Sandwich.
Bars quickly found a loophole in the law that allowed hotels with 10 or more rooms to serve drinks with meals at any time. Whoever drafted this law severely underestimated the size of this loophole, as saloons quickly managed to fit an entire dining industry inside it.
Within a matter of days, business pounced. These venues were no longer bars, taverns, and saloons but rather hotels. At the center of this scheme was the Raines Sandwich. Whenever a hotel patron was looking to get their drink on, they'd order one and find it served with a sizable portion of completely legal whiskey.
It's worth noting that nobody ever actually ate these sandwiches. They were dropped off with some booze, left on the table for a few minutes, before being whisked away to legalize another drink order at another table. Also, nobody ate these sandwiches because they were objectively horrifying.
Let that sink in: even by the standards of the early 1900s, a time period where bakers put sawdust in bread and public hygiene was questionable, these sandwiches were considered disgusting. And since nobody would ever eat them, hotels didn't see a particular need to switch them out, meaning that the same sandwich could easily be served hundreds of times before the smell forced everyone to put it out of its misery.
Playwright Eugene O'Neill referred to the sandwich as "an old desiccated ruin of dust-laden bread and mummified ham or cheese." Other sandwiches were made of a cheap rubber that would start to curl and stink after spending enough time sitting out in the heat of a saloon's kitchen.
This loophole led to a boom in alcohol sales. Within a year, more than 1,500 new hotels had sprung up in New York alone. While the Raines Act had intended to curb public alcohol consumption, it unintentionally gave countless businesses more freedom to serve liquor, and this sandwich played a part. Ultimately, the loophole became part of a larger social push towards prohibition that led to the 18th Amendment in 1920 and its repeal in 1933.
Thankfully, we've got much better bar food available today. Long gone is the era where we had to suffer through our food to get our drinks. Instead, bar food today can feel like its own distinct cooking style, a chance for bars to turn a round of drinks into a full evening of festivities.
So, the next time you find yourself munching on some chicken wings or nachos, take a second to appreciate how un-mummified they are.