What Is an ‘Unreasonably Small Portion of Soup’?

And other questions about New York’s “substantial food item” guidelines. Photo-Illustration: The Cut. Photos: Getty Images

If someone were to put me on the spot and demand I name a “substantial” food item, beef would probably be the first example to surface in my brain. Beef connotes protein; it also carries a vaguely threatening aura (due to being synonymous with fighting and feuding) and suggests a certain robustness. To be beefy is to be sturdy, brawny, strapping, and possibly also barrel-chested. But then substance is in the eye of the beholder: New York State, for example, makes no mention of beef on its brief but highly specific list of “substantial” and insubstantial food items. Why does New York State feel the need to differentiate? Because fun Governor Kathy Hochul just made to-go cocktails a permanent fixture, with a caveat: Bars and restaurants must sell alcoholic bevs with a “substantial food item,” a category that includes sandwiches, but explicitly excludes a little thing of canned beans. Discrimination? I think so, but let us examine the guidelines.

Q: What, according to NYS, qualifies as a “substantial food item”?
A: Per the guidance, “a substantial food item is defined as sandwiches, soups or other foods, whether fresh, processed, precooked or frozen.”

Q: “Other foods”? What does that mean?
A: “Other foods are foods which are similar in quality and substance to sandwiches and soups; for example, salads, wings, or hotdogs would be of that quality and substance.”

Q: What food items would not be of that quality and substance?
A: To name a few examples, “A bag of chips, bowl of nuts, or candy alone.”

Q: Are there any food items that jump out at the state as being patently illegal; offensive, even?
A: It seems so. “Obvious efforts to circumvent the law, for example an unreasonably small portion of soup, a serving of canned beans, a handful of lettuce, or charging a small extra fee for an alcoholic beverage in lieu of a food item not actually ordered or delivered will be treated as a violation of the law.”

Q: What qualifies as an “unreasonably small” soup? Who gets to make that call?
A: No idea. Soup in general strikes me as a bizarre appointment to the “substantial” category, because it can be very thick or very thin, filling (chowder) or not at all (miso). I’m pretty sure satisfaction with the portion size comes down to the customer, how much they enjoy their soup, and also how heavy the soup is. Probably the governor would take issue with a shot of soup, but honestly this one raises a whole raft of follow-ups. Like, are we saying that a little cup of chili is less satiating/nutritionally valid than a hot dog? What about fruit soups, broadly speaking? Say you open a can of beans to find just one single bean floating around in there: Is that a sort of soup? Where is the line?

Q: Speaking of beans. Is it legal to have a side of beans with my drink, if the beans were soaked overnight and then boiled with seasonings?
A: The state has not clarified its position on dry beans, so I cannot tell you whether or not that scenario would be acceptable in the eyes of the law. The “canned” caveat does sound snobbish to me, particularly because beans are high in protein and are an excellent source of magnesium; regular consumption of beans may mitigate a person’s risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, certain heart conditions, and more. They are also a sustainable crop, whereas none of the above can be said for hot dogs, so again, this all seems deeply subjective. Biased, even? Certainly bound for controversy, considering that everyone loves beans now.

Q: Who has been handing out fistfuls of iceberg with to-go drinks?
A: I have no idea but am dying to know. Unfortunately, now that it is illegal to just dump some arugula in my palm when I step up to the drinks window, I will never get confirmation.

Q: Should we read the inclusion of hot dogs on this list as the state choosing a side in the are-hot-dogs-sandwiches-discuss debate?
A: It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that NYS and the governor’s office are free-associating hot dogs and sandwiches for that reason, though I am betting hot dogs made the list because they are cheap (then again, so are beans) and readily available (ditto beans).

Q: Surely no one is classing those Wonderbread-and-Kraft-single sandwiches — ubiquitous in New York City during the inaugural to-go drinks era — among the substantial food items?
A: Filling between two breads is technically a sandwich, so I imagine these will make a comeback, even though they are indisputably less hearty than beans.

Q: And beef? What about beef?
A: Hot dogs can be beef, and wings are just meat, so I suspect a little beef would be acceptable to the governor. This is just a guess, though; please do not take my word for it. I would hate to push you toward lawlessness.

What Is an ‘Unreasonably Small Portion of Soup’?