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On the Death of Cuomo Chips
A bad idea finally gets pulled from the menu.
Ab Ovo is a twice-weekly newsletter produced by Clay Dillow (CD) and Tim McKirdy (TM). If you enjoy our work, we’d love to have you as a subscriber (it’s free!). If you already subscribe, we appreciate the support — and don’t forget to forward this to a friend. Thanks for reading.
As America chugs along toward herd immunity at an average speed of 2.7 million vaccinations per day, the New York State Legislature has finally announced the impending death of “Cuomo Chips.” For those who don’t live in the Empire State or missed this particular pandemic-related legislative quirk, allow me to explain.
The term first crinkled into our consciousness last summer as New York attempted to balance pandemic safety with the needs of thousands of struggling bars and restaurants. In July 2020, the state mandated that customers taking advantage of bars’ and restaurants’ outdoor areas must purchase food along with any alcoholic drinks, and therefore that anyone selling alcoholic drinks must provide some food option on their menus.
Ostensibly, the ruling sought to keep diners seated and away from the bar (or recently adapted service hatches), lowering the risk of gathering crowds and perhaps even pocketing the establishments a few extra dollars and cents in the process.
But it quickly became apparent this was a one-size-fits-nobody solution, one that really only served to highlight America’s weird, disjointed history where it comes to selling and consuming alcohol.
Unlike Parisian cafes or Spain’s vaunted tapas bars, most New York bars simply aren’t set up to prepare and sell food, which is where the chips came in...or didn’t. Faced with yet another legal hoop to jump through, those New York bar owners without working kitchens pushed the boundaries of what constitutes a reasonable food item. Drinkers soon saw a slew of inventive a la carte options, ranging from “just a handful of grapes” to “the smallest piece of cheesecake you’ll ever see” to the now-famous “Cuomo Chips.”
Attention-loving though he is, Governor Cuomo was not impressed. So the State Liquor Authority (SLA) swiftly updated the ordinance, making clear that food items had to be something as substantial as a bowl of soup, a microwaved hotdog, or a sandwich.
Perhaps unaware of the irony of their actions, in doing so the SLA completed a circle of forgotten history, for Cuomo Chips are not the first government-official-inspired food item devised to flout a drinking law.
At the end of the 19th century, New York Senator John W. Raines introduced alcohol excise legislation that would soon come to be known as the “Raines Law.” Intended to curb rampant overindulgence — mainly in New York City — the law prohibited the sale of alcohol on Sundays, except in hotels with at least 10 rooms, where drinks could be served only with complimentary meals.
But bar and saloon owners, as we know, are a savvy bunch. To satisfy the requirement, many converted any extra space in their premises (think: attics, basements, broom cupboards) into “lodgings.” As for food, they devised the “Raines Sandwich,” surely one of the foulest dishes in dining history — if you can even call it a dish.
When patrons ordered a beer at one of the city’s scores of new “hotels,” it would arrive accompanied by the novelty sando. As soon as the server set it down in front of the guest, the delicacy would be swept back to the bar before accompanying another order to another thirsty customer.
No one complained about the missed meal, though. By all accounts, the sandwiches were never fit for human consumption. Rubber and/or bricks invariably acted as the considerable filler between the two moldy slices, which in one case even led to the delicacy being used as a murder weapon. Even when made of actual edible food, the Raines Sandwich could find itself working multiple night shifts at a bar before it was finally thrown out.
Prohibition ultimately 86ed the Raines Law sandwich, but the menu item survived long enough to endure a legal battle in which the state court ultimately ruled the sandwich a sufficient meal. Which brings us rather neatly back to those Cuomo Chips.
Thankfully, the 2020 SLA ruling never brought about anything quite as nasty as the Raines Sandwich. But knowing of its existence, I did smile on a few occasions this past year when I saw bars selling drinks along with a symbolic, measly pack of chips (which appeared to be edible, at least; I never saw them handed back).
On the other hand, it all seemed so preposterous. During the most trying time for bars and restaurants in living memory, the government forced businesses to jump through an arbitrary hoop simply to satisfy an archaic distrust of the drinking public. If Cuomo Chips achieved anything, they proved just how how antiquated America’s regulatory relationship with alcohol remains. — TM
What We’re Mixing
Derby Day’s a-comin’, and with it arrives the perfect opportunity to share a quick cocktail tip I learned from the Kentucky-based, James Beard Award-nominated Chef Ouita Michel. Sadly, this drink won’t be ready until next year’s Derby. On the plus side, it’s an easy method for whipping up life-changing Mint Juleps. Here’s how it’s done: Reserve all the mint sprigs, stalks, and leaves you have left over from making Juleps this Saturday. Empty a new bottle of bourbon (such as Old Forester 1920) into a container, and pack the mint into the empty glass vessel. Refill with the reserved bourbon, enjoying any surplus. After making sure the cap is tightly sealed, lay down in a dark place to infuse until next year’s Derby. When the time comes to serve, pour over crushed ice and enjoy — in Chef Ouita’s words — the “best Mint Julep you’ll ever taste.” — TM