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Monday, February 6, 2012

TASTE: McSorley’s Old Ale House cracker-and-cheese plate


This is a place where afternoon slips as easily into evening as the beer slips down the throats of its patrons. Dectets of mugs thunk down on the wooden tables from the fist of a smocked waiter. Beneath the clutter of picture frames and Christmas lights, glasses raised above the brims of baseball caps smash together. There are only two kinds of beer here: dark and light, not too different, and served in five-gulp portions.

This is a place to drink fast and drink long, a place so caught in the past that it’s easy to forget about passing time. But you need something to sustain yourself against all that beer and camaraderie, against the fading of the day. Forget the hamburger and respect the last part of the bar’s oft-cited former motto: “Good Ale, No Ladies, and Raw Onions.” The only thing to order here is the cracker-and-cheese plate.

It’s not much to look at: an unopened sleeve of saltines, a few slabs of cheddar sliced from a brick, curls of raw onion, and wedges of wan beefsteak tomato. Alongside arrives a flip-top bowl of horseradish mustard outfitted with a wooden tongue depressor. The idea is to slap a slice of cheddar onto a saltine, smear on a dab of horseradish, and drape it with a wisp of onion and a bit of tomato. Then raise the tower to your beer-foam-laced lips and bite.

First comes the dry crumble of cracker and crackle of salt crystals sticking to your tongue. Then a mitigating layer of rubbery, forgiving cheese. But almost before you can taste it there’s a punch of horseradish searing its way through everything else. The raw onion kicks in next with an oily stab, followed by a soothing spurt of tomato: a crunch of rind, a cool ooze of seedy pulp. Finally, a slurp (or mug) of beer to wash it all down and cleanse the palate for the next creamy, salty, tangy, spicy, sharp, soothing bite. There’s a combination and flavor for the mood of each passing hour: from the barbaric yawps of midday to the soulful ponderings of early evening.

The fading sun has left warm patches on the sawdust-strewn floor; the beer has left a filigree of foam on another round of just-emptied glasses. The cracker sleeve has been hollowed; there’s horseradish on both ends of the paddle. As Dylan Thomas put it, “Do not go gentle into that good night… Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

1 comment:

Elissa said...

An elderly person in my Lower East Side building remembers Mrs. McSorley who was somewhat friendly with his grandmother. The bottom line was that on hot, thirsty summer nights the couple reached a compromise. She would sit outside the salon with another chair with which she could invite one of the other elderly ladies on E. 6th Street to join her. Then her husband would have beer brought to her and to her friend. Only after every male customer left, Mrs. McSorley went back in.