Walking the block or so from the 7 train in Sunnyside, Queens, I nearly passed right by the Butcher Block. I guess I was expecting something a little greener, something that shouted Irish. I should've known better: The Butcher Block is a genuine neighborhood grocery store, as well as a purveyor of Irish and English foods, and thus stocks Ragu spaghetti sauce and Ivory dish soap, in addition to such Irish cultural shibboleths as Tayto Smoky Bacon Crisps (potato chips), which also come in Prawn Cocktail and Roast Chicken and a ton of other flavors most New Yorkers don't connect with potato chips. There is a refrigerator full of imported sandwich bread--Brennan's Batch ("Today's bread today") and Pat's Pan ("So fresh it's famous")--wrapped in the crinkly, waxy paper that reminds me of the Silvercup Bread I ate growing up in Brooklyn. The bread's got a good chew and wheaty flavor, definitely several steps up from most American packaged breads.
Up and down the aisles, you'll continue to find both the familiar and the foreign. Canned rice pudding. Grapefruit marmalade. Black treacle. And I spotted lots of items that I had only known from years of reading English and Irish novels. Ginger nuts, which to my disappointment are not nut-shaped at all, but are indistinguishable from ginger snaps; at least until you bite into one. Ginger nuts have a good deal more zingy, gingery heat. Also there were digestive biscuits, a slightly sweet cookie born to be dunked into a cuppa (and cherished by those of us who've read the works of the vinegar-tongued Nancy Mitford).
The meat and prepared foods counter stretches almost the length of the store, and is staffed by helpful butchers who know their meats, and cut them meticulously. While I was waiting for my Irish bacon to be sliced into rashers, I talked to the affable Hugh Gallagher, who stood behind the counter. He told me that this was the Butcher Block's second-- and larger--location, the first having been lost in a tragic fire that consumed an ethnic assortment of eleven stores and restaurants in 2003. Butcher Block was one of the lucky few able to start anew, and has now been in Sunnyside for a total of ten years.
According to Hugh, Sunnyside's Irish scene was once a bit more lively. I know that many émigrés returned to Ireland after the emergence of the Celtic Tiger, but Sunnyside still retains a great deal of Irish flavor. While I strolled along Queens Boulevard eating a sausage roll from the Butcher Block, I passed a pub, its Irish flag snapping against the bright blue autumn sky, on nearly every block.
I was sorely tempted to stroll through a pub door into one of those familiar realms of cool darkness, polished taps, and perfectly pulled pints and order myself a Guinness, but it was time to head home and fry up that bacon for colcannon, a classic Irish potato-and-cabbage-based dish. Having rather more than a bit of Irish in me, I know perfectly well that there's no such thing as downing one pint of Guinness.
43-46 41st Street, Sunnyside NY 11104 (map)