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A Crispy Upgrade for Cheese and Crackers

The bartender at McSorley’s Old Ale House wears a black garbage bag tied around his waist under his long white apron. When you order your ale there, all on draft, no bottles — you have a choice: light or dark, but whichever you order, they bring it two mugs at a time. It’s a standing-only bar often packed three deep, so with that much mug washing, that much brisk, agitated dunking into the hot soapy bins at his knees, the garbage bag makes sense.

There’s sawdust all over the floors of the East Village institution, and the place smells sour and stale, but the waiter wears a formal gray waiter’s jacket with lapels and pouch pockets. This makes sense, too: It’s a cash-only operation, and there’s famously no cash register, so he runs the cash-and-carry operation out of his pockets. When you order the cheese plate, you have a choice, too: small or large. It’s a pile of wan, rubbery Cheddar, a stack of raw white onion, and before Covid-19, they used to set it down with a mug (now a plastic takeout cup) of wickedly hot brown mustard, which you dipped into with a wooden tongue depressor to spread onto the crackers. The crackers, then and now, have always been a half sleeve of saltines, with the papery plastic-​wrapper seam hospitably split open for you by someone back in the kitchen. It’s a perfection of unpretentiousness.

So much about this place could be seen as out of step — the sawdust, the reek, the cash-only stance. It didn’t even allow women until 1970. But it was a bit of a tradition in my family to meet up there around the holidays. My father would invite the five of us kids — once we were all over 18, and off in different directions in our lives — to rendezvous there before we went to the theater or headed to Sardi’s for dinner. And even though I always experienced a moment of uneasy fear stepping inside and making my way through the crowd of red-faced men, I completely fell for the straightforward charm of that cheese plate.

When I started Thanksgiving at Prune 20 years ago, I put a version of the plate on the menu, and it had become a tradition of my own. When guests arrived, we would set one down on the table as we hung up their coats, and they read the wine list, had a cocktail, visited with their families. It was on a china plate, with a very good sharp Cheddar, and a milder, more vinegary yellow mustard that I prefer. However, the white onion was still white onion, raw and thinly sliced, and the store-bought saltine crackers I had never “updated.”

I’ve been cooking Thanksgiving dinner at Prune for two decades, and some families have been coming every year for nearly as long. I’ve seen some of their little ones who used to show up in diminutive velvet blazers, their legs dangling from the banquette as they sipped Shirley Temples, arrive in later years with full beards and casually order their own I.P.A.s. But all of us will need to update our plans again this year, as the restaurant remains closed. My own children have come to be excited about our own particular routine — the only one they have ever known — when we all just very happily sit at the wooden kitchen counter the following Friday, in T-shirts, having a massive spread of Next-Day Leftovers that I bring home from work.

This year my boyos, now teenagers, have requested the same tradition — they still want leftovers, and they still want it the day after. They want to know if they can invite their friends, and their friends now have even started asking if they can come over for Next-Day Leftovers. Which is a charm of its own I completely fall for.

I usually cooked for roughly 130 people. I made my 18 pies, my 32 capons, 50 pounds of mashed potatoes, the chestnuts, the oyster pan roast, the cornbread stuffing, the braised kale, the mixed mushrooms, the sweet-and-sour pearl onions, the celery-root rémoulade — all without even looking at a recipe, by muscle memory alone. Leftovers had never required any forethought or planning. I’m sure we’ll figure it out, how to downscale and downsize and downshift our mighty machinery to accomplish this funny thing that domestic cooks have been struggling with for decades: dinner for a small group. But I notice I’m stumbling a little already. Change is always an unsettling mix of exhilaration and worry.

But the traditional annual snack that starts us off while we have a martini and finish whisking the gravy will not be hard to adapt. It’s the perfect thing to set out first, while you do whatever it is you do to get ready in your house, whatever size group you’re having. Sharp Cheddar, cut into neat tablets, sliced white onion, mustard and saltines.

I’m frying the crackers this year, an adaptation I learned about from my colleague Alexandra Raij. I met her when she was a line cook at Prune, just a couple of years out of culinary school. Now she is a chef with her own restaurants and her own kids. She may not have invented the technique of frying crackers, which is a tradition in the American South, but she might be the first person to bring it to New York City — nutty, salty crisp saltines that she stacks next to her ceviches. Now that I’ve had them fried, I’ll never go back to “raw.” It’s one exhilarating change to a tradition that makes a lot of sense.


Recipe: Fried Saltines With Cheddar and Onions

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