I’ve always looked kindly upon bars offering free food to their patrons, the subtle implication being that we’re all in this together — provided you’re cool with overpaying for the booze.
It’s been this way for me ever since my first year out of college when sustenance was generally found in myriad complimentary offerings throughout New York City. There were so many I can’t remember them all, but here are a few examples: Hebrew National hotdogs at Rudy’s; Halloween candy at Dive 75; Sunday bagel brunch at DBA; and a free pizza with every drink purchase at the Alligator Lounge.
In other words, free bar snacks are a young drunkard’s best friend. (Turns out they’re also appreciated by coworkers, as evidenced by an ever-diminishing 44-ounce barrel of Utz Original Pub Mix I keep on my desk.)
Despite my affinity for free bar food, I was still curious, though: When and why did the practice of offering food gratis to drunks take hold? Is this purely an American phenomenon? And most importantly, is it true what Johnny Depp has said about bar nuts containing 27 different types of urine?
- The practice of serving free snacks to people getting their drink on began in the mid-1800s at one of two places, explains Christine Sismondo, author of America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops. The first, she tells me, was allegedly in Chicago, where saloonkeeper/politician “Chesterfield Joe” Mackin attempted to drum up business — and votes — by offering a free hot oyster for every drink purchased.
- The other was at La Bourse de Maspero in New Orleans, where patrons who ordered a drink were handed a plate and invited to a enjoy “free lunch” at a table stocked with soup, meat pie and oyster patties.
- Perhaps not the first, but Sismondo says her favorite is McSorley’s Old Ale House in New York, which always had slices of raw onions on offer. As a 1940 New Yorker profile explained, “Old John McSorley, the founder, had an extraordinary appetite for onions, the stronger the better.” As did notable patrons Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, Boss Tweed, Hunter S. Thompson, Woody Guthrie and poet E. E. Cummings, who described McSorley’s as “the ale which never lets you grow old.”
- Sismondo says all of this, at its core, was obviously a ruse to get people to enter a bar, order a drink and then drink more than they intended. “The salty food played a role in the scheme, but so did human nature,” she explains. “Once in a bar, it was hard to leave. And most men didn’t want to appear cheap, especially in a saloon, so they often ordered a second, which could then lead to an entire afternoon.”
- In terms of typical freebies, Sismondo says there was a pretty big range — from cold meats to hardboiled eggs to pickles, which she calls the “three major food groups of late-19th century bars.”
- Joel Lee Kulp, an original member of the bartending staff at Pastis — the Meatpacking District’s scrappy, brasserie-style little brother of Balthazar — told the Tales of the Cocktail website, “Hard-boiled eggs on the bar were a big deal for our fearless leader, [Keith McNally, “the restaurateur who invented downtown” per The New York Times]. The eggs signified a real ‘everyman’ environment, even within the walls of the hottest restaurant opening of the time.”
- Adding to the history lesson, Richard Foss, culinary historian and author of Rum: A Global History, gives credit to the Germans for first pairing pickled eggs with booze (beer in particular) — and then bringing the practice with them to Southern California of all places. “The pickled egg I had near Frankfurt, [Germany] was precisely the same flavor as the one at Joe Jost’s,” a tavern in Long Beach, where, Foss writes, “there is an offering of lurid, green, pickled, hard-boiled eggs. I would suspect Germans brought in a taste for these pickled things that go very well with lager as well.”
- Others, however, point to France as the originator of the free bar egg. The tradition “was reputedly born of a surplus amount of eggs [in France] and a requirement that establishments serving liquor also serve food,” the New York Observer reported in 2011.
- Chex Mix, often the go-to free bar snack (and more or less the foundation of my deskside pub mix), first became popular as a holiday treat in 1955 when the wife of an executive of Ralston Purina, maker of Chex cereal, served the snack at a holiday function in St. Louis. It also started a trend of “TV mixes,” or snacks that could be consumed without interrupting television-watching. The 1950 edition of the Betty Crocker Cookbook, for example, includes a recipe for a snack mix made with Kix cereal. (I did not, however, find any mention of Kix Mix in a bar context.)
- For a little levity, here’s a beer-nuts joke an old bartender once told me. Q) What’s the difference between beer nuts and deer nuts? A) Beer nuts are $1.39; deer nuts are under a buck.
- Beer and peanuts — like Bert and Ernie — is a classic pairing. But according to Marcia Pelchat, who specializes in the mechanics of food cravings, that’s not because they make you thirsty. Instead, Pelchat told Pilly.com, it’s because Bert makes Ernie easier to swallow thanks to the sodium chloride — aka table salt — found on Ernie’s nuts countering Bert’s bitterness.
- As the slow food movement and gastropub trends have evolved, though, we’re no longer talking about mere peanuts. No, now it’s all about gourmet nut mixes, the likes of which are served, for free, at Lucy’s Restaurant & Bar in Napa Valley by chef Victor Scargle. In addition to sweet energy trail mix made with butter-toffee nuts, peanuts, cashews, pecans, almonds, chocolate and raisins, Lucy’s offers cayenne/chili flake and kaffir lime popcorn and Guadalajara trail mix made of rice crackers, peanuts, sesame sticks, almonds, sunflower seeds and toasted corn.
- Gourmet or not, in July 2005, while a guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Johnny Depp stated that a study done on bar peanuts had revealed the presence of 27 different types of urine. Snopes’ conclusion: UNDETERMINED.
- According to Teakay’s Blog, hosted by T.K. Briggs, an apparent jokester, “if you take up a handful of peanuts from the bowl in front of you and throw them into your mouth you are actually committing a gross social faux pas.” That’s because, Briggs posits, the primary duty of the salted peanuts is to dry one’s hands after washing them in the bathroom. “Dipping the fingers into a bowl of peanuts and having a bit of a rummage allows the salt on the peanuts to absorb excess water, reducing the lubricating effect it has on fingers, decreasing the likelihood of glass slippage and therefore droppage and spillage.”
- “In the era when these snacks started there was no concern about hygiene,” Sismondo explains. “They were absolutely filthy and poorly looked after, getting put away one day and set out the next, despite having sat out the whole time.” Confirming this, Reader’s Digest includes bar snacks on a list of “13 Things You Should Never Eat at a Bar,” warning, “ It’s like eating out of a stranger’s hand! Since these munchies are free of charge, restaurants and bars often don’t set out a fresh serving for each new customer. Then at closing time they’re dumped back into a container, to be re-poured into dishes the next day.”
- Forbes concurs, explaining, “Studies by the Minnesota Department of Health cite that hand-to-food is one of the most common ways to spread illness. Communal free food is a catch-all for germs!”
- Like the nasty viruses these bowls breed, free bar food has gone international. Free tapas, for example, are offered throughout Spain, given out of gratitude for ordering drinks in a bar. Nowhere is that gratitude more appreciated than at La Cova in Barcelona, which serves a “tapa of the day.” Order up a twilight negroni and enjoy one of the following: A cannelloni filled with salmon mousse, a spoon of stuffed squid, clams, octopus, croquettes, Iberian cold cuts, cheeses, small fried fish or the classic — chistorra sausage.
- Likewise, according to my friend Damon, if you order a small beer at La Chata in Madrid, you’ll get a full seafood paella.
- Parisian bars share this custom as well — e.g., Le Bouillon Belge serves low-cost pints with a choice of couscous or mussels.
- In his travels to Italy, my friend Dave has found that local bars serve all kinds of free food pairings: “Fresh tomatoes with local olive oil and salt was my all time favorite! I ate two bowls!”
- Every bar you go into in Peru has bowls of toasted, lightly seasoned corn kernels called chulpe, VICE’s Mike Darling tells me. “Doesn’t seem like much, but they’re addictive as hell. And it’s smart, since the saltiness makes you want to keep drinking.”
- Sadly, though, the heyday of free bar food has long since passed here in the U.S. “One hundred fifty years ago, competition was so high that people would do almost anything to get customers through the door. Now, restaurants and bars are much smarter and realize they can charge for anything — even bread and water,” Sismondo laments.
In other words, there’s no longer such a thing as a free lunch.