New York, New York

The Nights of Malta

It’s an acquired taste. It’s a strange delicacy. It’s a “non-alcoholic cereal beverage.”

I live on one of the coolest streets in the city. East 110th Street, the heart of Spanish Harlem. Of course, 110th technically runs across the island, but on the West Side it goes by Cathedral Parkway, and above the park it’s Central Park North. But on the East Side, it’s all 110th Street.

East 110th Street’s honorary title is Tito Puente Way, after the jazz legend who grew up in the neighborhood. Now that’s cool. How many other streets in the city can claim after a jazz legend? Most of them are titled after sewer commissioners or Polish revolutionaries. The title fits, too—the street’s alive with music, at all hours. Sunday nights a bunch of guys hold pick-up mariachi jam sessions in the basement of the building next to mine. In the afternoon old women sit outside the bodegas on either side of my apartment and fry corn while singing to themselves.

And while the neighborhood is kind of dirty, it’s also relatively safe. A few weeks ago a man stabbed his wife with a spear gun in a pawn shop a few blocks north of me, but that was the only violence I’ve heard of—and it was technically a domestic dispute, anyway. Still, at night as I leave the subway I grasp my keys, sticking the largest one out like a knife, just in case.

The 110th Street FoodChoice is a set from a forgotten episode of The Twilight Zone, in which a run-of-the-mill supermarket in the Chicago suburbs has been replaced by its Latin-American doppelgänger—the aisles and checkout counters are all there, just like usual, but foods like mushrooms and celery have been uprooted by cactus fronds and pickled squid. And malta. Stacks and stacks of malta.

Malta, if you don’t know, is a ‘non-alcoholic cereal beverage.’ Sort of like beer, its main ingredients are water, barley, molasses, caramel malt, and hops. There are dozens of brands, and it’s marketed as a vitamin/energy drink, in 10-packs of seven-ounce bottles. And at FoodChoice, it moves fast. They stack them like 12-packs of cola, in towering pyramids next to the entrance. For a while there was a poster just inside the door of the Chicago Cubs’ Sammy Sosa down on one knee, holding a bottle of malta and beaming his big goofy grin.

One day, figuring I should try and fit in more with the neighborhood, take advantage of the cultural opportunities, etc. etc., I decided to try a malta. How bad could it be—the stuff looks just like cola. So I picked up a pack at FoodChoice and brought it home, eager to try something new, a little adventure in my kitchen.

Now, maybe I bought the wrong brand. Maybe it was a bad pack. Maybe…maybe I was an idiot for buying malta. In taste it runs between flat beer and Tab, with a heavy dose of molasses. I couldn’t get down more than a sip; the rest went in the sink.

At work the next day I asked a friend if she’d tried malta, and she said yeah, and that it was disgusting but it also grows on you. An acquired taste. Of course. What a relief—like all cross-cultural adventures, I realized, drinking malta shouldn’t be easy. I returned that night with a newfound boldness. I would finish that bottle, and—someday—the entire pack.

Right. One malta later and it was just more of the same. Sip, grimace. Sip, grimace. Next day, repeat cycle. It has a mean aftertaste that sits in your mouth for hours. I tried mixing it with water, then Coke, but all it did was make me never want to drink either, ever again.

After a week of nightly sips and nightly dry heaves, I gave in. Malta and I would never be friends. Before going to bed one night, I went downstairs and left my nine and a half bottles of malta outside the front door of my building. When I left for work the next morning, they were gone.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen