The Prodigal Sauce

Photo: Half Baked Harvest
Photo: Half Baked Harvest

The meal itself was unremarkable. It had no business even hinting at the level of transcendence I’ve since bestowed upon it. It was just a decent burger with mediocre fries in an average Irish pub, but there I was, wide-eyed and grinning. I was swiftly approaching foolishness.

I had just started grad school and found myself, one night, with a two-hour gap between class and work. With time to kill, I popped into Connolly’s, a pub near my job. I planned to relax, eat a slow lunch and catch up on some reading before sinking into my cubicle. I was on my second Newcastle—don’t judge—when the food arrived. The restaurant called it a Gaelic burger, which meant that it came with cheddar, caramelized onions, and Irish bacon, and was topped with a Jameson sauce. I had little faith in the Jameson sauce and made sure to order a side of barbecue as well—just in case.

The Jameson sauce was sweet and sticky and turned out to be pretty good, but this story isn’t about that sauce. I dipped a French fry into the little ramekin on the side, and caught its scent as it neared my mouth. Some long-neglected hollow in my mind reanimated and I was awash in memories.

In college I worked at the Circuit City in Union Square. My friends and I would clock out and stroll up Park Avenue, cross over to Third and settle into a table at Fitzgerald’s. In the typical fashion of early-twenty-somethings, we’d put away obscene quantities of booze—shots of whiskey, pints of Guinness, Irish Car Bombs and whatever else the bartenders felt like putting in front of us. But the real highlight, and occasionally the entire reason to go, was the burger joint across the street. After last call at Fitzgerald’s, we’d invariably head over to Ziggiz to stuff our drunk faces with burgers and fries.

We’d pile in loud and drunk—exactly the kind of obnoxious group I hate when I’m not a member of it—and slur our orders. Details are obviously hazy, but I remember us laughing in the fluorescent light—that in-your-face, guffawing, back-slapping laughter —and shouting over one another. I cringe now to think how we must have looked, but as I always rationalized it, if they didn’t want people like us in there, they wouldn’t have been open at 4:30 in the morning.

The food was fantastic, and not only in that ‘everything-is-good-when-you’re-three-sheets-to-the-wind’ way. It was good sober too, and the night we picked up a menu and read those two glorious words—“WE DELIVER”—was a revelation. Ziggiz became a treat we occasionally had delivered to Circuit City, collecting orders from our people across the store. The shoestring fries were salty, crisped a deep bronze. They were extra well-done: either audibly crunchy, or soft and so saturated with oil that the paper bag turned translucent. What made the whole experience worthwhile, though, was the barbecue sauce. As good as the fries were, they were essentially a barbecue sauce delivery system. I smothered my burgers in it, and was crestfallen when I’d place an order and forget to ask for extra.

It had always been clear to me that this was not a house-made, proprietary recipe. It was chemically iridescent, a shade of red as natural as high fructose corn syrup. I knew it was store-bought, presumably in bulk, and I fantasized about tangy, syrupy buckets of it. But one day Ziggiz closed, without my knowing and so very much to my dismay. And I wouldn’t have that sauce again until I stumbled on it, years later, at Connolly’s.

“SURVEYING MY EMPTY PLATE, I THOUGHT NOT ABOUT HOW FAR I’D COME, BUT ABOUT THAT SUDDEN, PROUSTIAN FLASH OF PERSPECTIVE.”

There’s a world of difference between your early twenties and your late twenties. The Ziggiz era was a paycheck-to-paycheck whirlwind of partying and often inexcusable customer service. I was careless and profligate. Teen angst had mutated ever so slightly into twenty-something angst. I can’t recall having very many priorities, but whatever they were, that retail job certainly was not among them. King of the slackers, I was bold in my disdain—at times practically daring management to fire me—and yet maintaining appearances and doing just enough to keep the pink slip at bay.

When Connolly’s closed too, I considered undertaking a mission to track down that barbecue sauce, but in truth the sauce is less important than what it represented. Since then, I’ve actually come across some similarly tangy barbecue sauces, maybe even the same one, but never with the same result. Even now I can’t help but marvel at the difference a half a decade made. That day in Connolly’s, I was in graduate school—the king was dead—and had traded a job for a career, with a desk and no mealy-mouthed managers pushing me to up-sell. I had slowed down quite a bit, even grown tired of bars and crowds. There are few things more tempting to me now than an evening in with my fiancé Jillian. Us on the couch, nursing a cocktail, leaning into each other as television light flickers across our faces. As we’re expecting our first child, the thought trumps even the best nights at Fitzgerald’s.

Admittedly, most of these realizations were inchoate as I devoured that first cup of barbecue sauce—all but slurping it up like a Jell-O shot—and ordered another. I was running out of fries at an alarming rate. I was getting full but refused to stop glutting myself until I’d wiped the cups clean. Surveying my empty plate, I thought not about how far I’d come—I was still sneaking beers before work, after all—but about that sudden, Proustian flash of perspective. Things were beginning to resemble proper adulthood and I didn’t mind it one bit. Eventually, the waiter came by again, reminded me it was still happy hour, and asked if I wanted another Newcastle. I ordered a coffee.

Robert Tutton (@spitzmud) is a freelance writer and pop culture enthusiast from Queens, New York. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Village Voice and Curbed, among others.