The Free Lunch; The TV Show, The Interview and Next Tuesday, The Party

Hanging with a couple of 19th century Free Lunch Fiends. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Next Tuesday Edible Manhattan hosts a party at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum to celebrate the history of the Free Lunch, a fine period of the late 19th century when every bar in the city would dole out free grub in an attempt to keep their drinkers from ordering their beer elsewhere. The night includes beers from Brooklyn Brewery — whose classic lager gives a nod to the German style of beer appropriate to the Free Lunch period — classic Free Lunch foods like pretzels, wursts, pickled oysters, herring and pickles, and best yet, a lecture on the concept by culinary historian and 97 Orchard author Jane Ziegelman. All day today and Sunday, you can catch Jane on our weekly NY1 show talking about Free Lunch. But we felt like so much of the rich history she talked to us about is missing from that two-minute segment, we wanted to provide the interview in its entirety right here.

Q: Jane, tell us who you are and what you do?

Jane Ziegelman: I’m a culinary historian. I wrote a book this year called 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in one New York Tenement, and it’s essentially a culinary history of immigration on the Lower East Side, beginning in 1860 and going up to about 1935. But I am very soon going to be leading a culinary program at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

Q: Where were some of the people from in 97 Orchard?

Jane Ziegelman: It sort of ran the gamut. Because it was built so early, sort of at the beginning of what they call “The Age of Migration,” it got all different waves. And the first wave were the Irish and the Germans, and that kind of began in the 1840s and 50s. So at one point in 97 Orchard was in the heart was what they call “Kleine Deutschland”, or “Little Germany.” And it’s sort of a piece of Lower East Side history that has kind of gotten erased, but I think around 1860, the Lower East Side had the largest German population outside of Germany and it was the third largest German population of any city in the world, like just after Dresden or Munich or something. So it was a really important German enclave or German culture going on there. After the Germans came the East Europeans: Russian Jews, Polish Jews, primarily. And the last really important group was the Italians. And that began — it was after the Civil War — but it really picked up speed around the turn of the century.

Q: Did all of those immigrant cultures go to bars?

Jane Ziegelman: I mean everyone drinks, and these were all drinking people, but they had different ways of drinking. The way I see it are, the Germans were the great “saloon” keepers of New York. They really kind of ran the saloon trade, and they were also great public drinkers…drinking, for them, was a real social act. And it was also something — and this is something that separates them from the Irish — it was something you do as a family. So women drank and kids drank. It was perfectly acceptable to take your whole family, you know, the baby included, to a German Biergarten and for everyone to have a nice glass of Lager. And this was something that kind of shocked Americans, but it was really unique to the Germans. For the Irish, drinking was really sort of a “man’s sport.” Women drank tea, men drank whiskey, and they learned to drink beer once they came here.

Q: I guess the Germans were making a lot of beer at that point?

Jane Ziegelman: Yes. Well before 1840, there was no what we call “Lager” beer. It’s the beer that we all drink today: it’s the Budweisers, the Millers, and the Heinekens — that’s all Lager Beer. There was English-style Ale, which was kind of sweet and heavy and dark…and not particularly refreshing. The Germans introduced us to Lager beer, and they’re the first people to establish breweries here in the U.S. And many of them are on the Lower East Side along the East River.

Q: Skipping ahead to the food, what is “Free Lunch?”

Jane Ziegelman: Free Lunch…between about 1850 and roughly 1900 — saloons across New York City offered their customers what was known as “the Free Lunch.” It was a buffet-style spread and it was offered between maybe 11 and 3, to any customer who paid for a drink. And what that usually meant was a 5-cent glass of Lager — that was the working person’s drink of choice. One thing interesting about the Free Lunch is: it wasn’t limited to working class establishments. Everybody had it. So all the way from the Astor House down to your divviest dive, everybody offered some kind of free edible. And of course the menu, the spread, varied widely depending on the clientele and the saloon — how much they could afford.

Q: Tell me what you would find at a high-end saloon versus a dive bar?

Jane Ziegelman: Well I happen to know what they had at the Astor House. So Astor House, 1890, this is what you would find: an oxtail stew, cold roast turkey, Welsh rarebit, a chicken salad, a potato salad, and ginger snaps. Honestly, this is not the most generous “Free Lunch” spread for the Astor House; they could’ve done better. But I guess their clientele didn’t really need a Free Lunch, so it was kind of a symbolic offering. The really generous Free Lunch hosts were down in the Wall Street area. So these were the people who catered to office workers, and their Free Lunch was just copious and mouth-watering, and we would all be so lucky to like sample these Free Lunches. Soups of every kind: tomato soup, chicken soup, rice soup, bean soup, clam soup, clam chowder. All kinds of stews: mutton stew, beef stew, tripe stew was really popular — um tripe being really cheap meat. There were all kinds of cheeses, sausages, all kinds of pickled foods. The idea here is you’re eating stuff that is pungent, full-flavored, salty…so it’s stuff that’s going to want to make you have a second drink. And the idea of the Free Lunch is something to put in your stomach so you’re not drinking on an empty stomach, but then something to encourage you to drink a little more.

Q: So what would a hole-in-the-wall serve?

Jane Ziegelman: Yeah, a real hole-in-the-wall might be a plate of sliced onions, raw…maybe a boiled potato. If you were lucky, maybe a hard boiled egg and maybe a kind of stale biscuit.

Q: What about oysters and pretzels and things like that?

Jane Ziegelman: Well, I would say that we Americans learned how to serve a “Free Lunch” from the Germans. It wasn’t a German institution — the “Free Lunch” was not something that they brought over — but it was something that they kind of developed to perfection. And a lot of the foods on the Free Lunch counter were, in fact, German delicatessen offerings, so there were all kinds of herring. This was a sort-of great “drinking” food. There was pickled herring, smoked herring, salted herring. There were all kinds of pickled food: pickled pigs feet, pickled oysters, pickled tripe, just plain pickles, pickled onions, anything that you could pickle was on the Free Lunch counter. There were all of the great German wursts, or sausages, but I think the two leading contenders in the sausage world were the bratwurst, or blood sausage, and liverwurst, or liver sausage. There were great German cheeses. One of them was limburger cheese, which I’ve never had, but by reputation is a really pungent, stinky cheese, so it’ll certainly make you want to pick something up to wash it down. There were the pretzels, which are those chewy, ballpark-style pretzels — another food that the Germans brought us, and another classic German drinking food. And then to sort of round-it-out, like a great, chewy, rye and pumpernickel bread. So you kind of hit all the bases.

Q: These were foods that could sit out for a while?

Jane Ziegelman: Yeah, they were great foods for the Free Lunch because they could sit-out, because they taste good, and because they make you thirsty. That’s sort of what makes a great Free Lunch food.

You can also see there were these ethnic variations on the Free Lunch. So the French ate bread heavy with caraway seeds, and sliced garlic with vinegar. So that was a great sort of prompt for more drinking.

Q: Can you think of any places that follows the Free Lunch theme here in New York?

Jane Ziegelman: I mean the sad truth is that the Free Lunch was never really economically viable for the saloon keepers. It was something that they kind of had to do cause everybody was doing it. So if you didn’t have a Free Lunch you were kind of shooting yourself in the foot. But it’s still not really economically viable. Like the little pretzels on the bar, the peanuts, are kind of like the sad vestiges of the old Free Lunch.

Q: How did the whole thing even start?

Jane Ziegelman: That’s a mystery. Here’s something, though, that’s interesting: it didn’t seem to originate in New York. People say that the first Free Lunches in this country were in New Orleans. And I’m not 100-percent sure on that, but it did seem like they had a really generous Free Lunch situation going on there, and they were a great food city so that kind of makes sense. What happened here, I would say sometime in the mid-1850s, some bartender — and I’m guessing he was on the Lower East Side because that was sort of the saloon “capital” of the city at that time — decided that he could get a competitive edge by putting out a few nice, little edibles. And it started kind of modest, you know maybe bread and cheese and ham, but the problem is, it caught on. And before too long, everyone had it. You had to kind of up-the-ante and out-do the next guy, and the Free Lunch got bigger and bigger and grander and grander. And it was sort of a snowball effect; it had a sort of momentum of its own. And before too long, it was like a full smorgasbord.

Q: Anything about etiquette and how it might apply to current bar code culture?

Jane Ziegelman: The etiquette of the Free Lunch was really a sort of interesting phenomenon. First of all, there was etiquette, and what’s really interesting about it is that it kind of developed around a crowd that wasn’t particularly well mannered by conventional standards or submissive. These were like tough, New York guys. But there was a kind of tacit understanding between saloon keeper and customer that the saloon was providing this really generous service, and in return, the customer would pay for his drink and then eat his fair share. And that’s what kind of allowed the system to work for so long. Or this is how the system sort of worked, in the ideal world. There were problems. In the really tough places, the action around the Free Lunch counter got really kind of rowdy, and there were lots of overturned tables — almost at the “food-fight” level. And especially as the drinking wore on, the messiness around the Free Lunch counter got more and more intense. But the real problem, in terms of the etiquette around the Free Lunch counter, were guys known as “Free Lunch fiends” or “Free Lunchers” or the “Free Lunch brigade.” And these were people who tried to milk the system. They were real kind of down-and-out types; they were vagrants, or they were unemployed, or they were unemployable. And their kind of shtick was to sneak into the bar, look like they belonged, look like their drink was at the end of the counter, amble over to the Free Lunch counter, and mooch. And inevitably, they were caught. And that’s because saloons had their regulars, and this was sort of an unfamiliar face. So the warning light went on as soon as this guy came through the door; he was thrown out, so he kind of went on to the next saloon, which was probably just two storefronts down the block anyway. So these guys made their rounds of the saloons. And these guys sort of became the nemesis of the saloon-keepers, but also of the honest customers because they sort of wrecked it for everybody.

I think to really appreciate the Free Lunch, you kind of have to understand how central saloons were to the life of this city. This was before we all had our VCRs or our TIVOs or whatever else we have, and social life was really lived outside of your cramped tenement apartment. And for men, that really meant the saloon. Saloons offer this tremendous camaraderie; it was guys you knew, a bartender who you knew and who knew you, it was where you went to find out about work. It was also kind of the center of the political life for the city. So political clubs had their headquarters in the saloons. And there was card-playing and there was music. So you kind of had it all. Free Lunch was like the cherry on the sundae. Everything you needed was there in the saloon.

Q: Did some of the dive bars really serve raw onions?

Jane Ziegelman: Well the idea of the raw onion is that you could take a bit of onion on your way out and mask the smell of the alcohol.

Q: That is what McSorley’s still serves?

Jane Ziegelman: That’s right. So they’re sort of holding on to the raw onion tradition.

Q: Was the bit about the Free Lunch part of what you learned researching the saloons, or just on your own?

Jane Ziegelman: It’s something that I knew a bit about, but I knew that I was doing this so I kind of went back and looked at my stuff and found more stuff.

Q: How long did it last?

Jane Ziegelman: It was like mid-1850s until 1896. And 1896 was when the Raines Law was passed. That was legislation that imposed certain liquor taxes, but also strengthened enforcement of the Blue Laws, of the you know, closing the bars and the saloons on Sundays. One clause in the Raines Law was the abolishing of the Free Lunch. So if you want to blame somebody for depriving us of Free Lunch, you can blame the Temperance League. If alcohol was the root of all evil, and it was according to the Temperance people, then right under alcohol was the Free Lunch because it provided this one more enticement, luring men into the bars and then insidiously provoking their thirst — first getting them in, and then keeping them drinking. So the temperance people just hated the Free Lunch, and it was a great victory to them when it was finally abolished.

Q: Have you seen some of the headlines of newspapers from that time?

Jane Ziegelman: Oh God yeah. A lot of my research is done in old newspapers. And yeah, there was a lot of sadness at the end of the Free Lunch. And in some saloons they kind of held wakes, and draped the Free Lunch counter with black crape and sort of marked the passing of this great New York institution. So people were really sad about the Free Lunch. And the truth is that for working guys, Free Lunch was a really important part of their diet. I mean, there was no better food deal in New York. Maybe there was the one-penny oysters you could get on the street — it came right under the Free Lunch. But if you had a limited food budget, this was a really important, cheap source of good nourishment. So people did suffer. Not the Astor House crowd, but your factory workers, and your long shore men, and your street sweepers and construction workers — they really did suffer nutritionally when the Free Lunch ended. It’s sad.

Q: Can we see some of the headlines? And a list of some of the foods that you’re going to have at your Free Lunch event.

Rachel: “A few headlines from the period: “The Fastidious of the Average Man Vanishes at the Free Lunch Counter,” “Smite Not the Lunch Fiend,” “How the Free Lunch Brigade Lives,” “The Bummer’s Bill of Faire,” and last but not least, “The Loafer and the Free Lunch men.” “A German generally has a plate of pretzels and limburger cheese rich with perfume for his patrons.”

Jane Ziegelman: Okay. The foods we’re going to have at our Free Lunch event are: we’re going to have oysters; we’re going to have different kinds of sausages; we’re going to have pretzels; you know what…I don’t know exactly what we’re going to have. Those are the ones I remember. We’re going to have some real stars of the Free Lunch counter; lots of pickled stuff. There’s no soup. That was something that was part of a good Free Lunch, but that was sort of something extra. That was like one step up. Anything warm or hot was kind of a gift. The last thing I can tell you about Free Lunch is the hygiene of the Free Lunch counter. There was a lot of concern about guys reaching in and grabbing things with their hands, but the real sort of hygienic trouble spot were the forks. If you had something on a plate and you were eating something with a fork or spoon, after you were finished with the utensil, you just put it in a tub of water, and then the next guy just reached in and grabbed it. And there was a funny newspaper piece on exactly that. On how really fastidious New Yorkers who would never accept dirty silverware anywhere else, at the Free Lunch counter sort of suspended their cleanliness standards and kind of let it slide…There was a whole kind of culture that grew up around this food institution, and it was around long enough for that to happen. So it is like a really fascinating slice of our culinary heritage.

Q: Could you legally have a Free Lunch now?

Jane Ziegelman: I think you could. I don’t think anyone would, but we don’t like in Raines Law times anymore. So I think you could.

Newsletter