Brandished like a cutlass toward the sky, the mini pretzel suddenly disappeared into the mouth of a mustachioed patron, who promptly doubled over in an uncontrollable fit of coughing. A scattering of raucous laughter erupted as the man continued his cherry-faced wheezathon and pushed through the crowded bar toward the bathrooms. Next to the man’s beer sat two unlabeled jars, unremarkable squat things with small plastic spoons standing up straight. One white, one brown. A condiment, a dare, a treasure – the booty of some strange, shipwrecked pirate.
Behind the bar, the pear-shaped “Horseradish King” smiled briefly and continued pouring beers for the thirsty crowd trying desperately to warm their spirits on a frigid October day.
It wasn’t the first time I’d watched a man nearly cough up a lung. Each of the past four summers my wife, in-laws, and I have made the pilgrimage to the Smugglers Lounge in Eagle River, Wisconsin, a touristy little town half an hour south of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Judging by the exterior, you wouldn’t guess at the treasure inside.
On this visit, we shook cold October rain from our umbrellas and quickly knifed inside to find pleasant warmth and a sea of customers packed like sardines in a tin. The restaurant’s narrow, dim interior is layered with wood paneling – even the ceiling – and the walls are draped with ship’s wheels, Miller Lite beer can boats, and other bits of nautical and otherwise off-beat paraphernalia. Think Lost‘s Black Rock crossed with a kitted out bar. After jostling our way toward the back and acquiring a small table near the toilets, we ordered a pitcher of beer. I noticed just about every patron with a pint or pitcher of their own and a few were three sheets to the wind. It was 1:30pm. The feel of Eagle River’s small town Americana was nowhere to be found; the Horseradish King ruled his kingdom by his own code.
Turns out the Horseradish King is also the waiter, and he sidled up to take the food order his wife would prepare in the “kitchen.” It looked more like a converted mop closet that boasted a small griddle.
“I’ll have the Captain Burger,” declared Ann, my mother-in-law.
His majesty looked nonplussed. “It’s not your turn,” he said with a hint of fatherly condescension.
“Age before beauty.”
“Beauty was a horse,” he grunted. Joe, my father-in-law, and I looked at each other and grinned. Ann congenially played off the edgy banter as Sarah put in her order.
The order came back to Ann. “How are the cheese curds? Are they any good?”
“They wouldn’t be on my menu if they weren’t good.”
“Hmm, how about the sweet potato fries?” At this point, Ann gleefully pushed the old rogue’s buttons.
“Should I be asking your husband the same questions?” The Horseradish King queried with mock seriousness. Joe dropped his head in his hands and we collectively groaned in feigned offense. It’s the kind of statement that could only be uttered by that man at that time without fisticuffs. We were truly in a foreign land.
His grace promised to bring the mustard and horseradish jars to our table and wandered off. Behind us, middle-aged locals in beer jackets plugged quarters into a Pot O Silver machine and yelped in victory when their 10 dollars turned into four dollars worth of winnings. I slowly drank beer from my tiny eight ounce glass and shivered. Despite the damp and the arctic drafts outside, there was something heartwarming about finding Smugglers Lounge just off Eagle River’s main drag. Not a block away chain t-shirt shops, candy stores, and souvenir shops sold kitschy knick-knacks to help visitors prove they were here. Or to recall the experience. But given the choice, I’d choose a verbal duel with the Horseradish King over an Eagle River hoody any day of the week.
Noticing that his lordship had completely forgotten about the mustard and horseradish, Ann retrieved the jars of death after a brief spar with King Friday. By all appearances the contents of the jars are benign, homemade unctures. In fact, ingesting the tiniest dollop yields a chemical fireball of immeasurable megatons, a blast that turns your sinuses into your own personal version of White Sands, New Mexico. Eat any of the pure horseradish and you will immediately turn into Ghost Rider. As it turns out, the Horseradish King truly is a smuggler; he sells these vicious jars to insane customers seeking such rough treatment on a regular basis. Believe me, this stuff makes for hilarious pranks (“Oooh, pretzels and mustard!”).
On the way out I decided to purchase one of the nondescript, noticeably-lacking-of-FDA-approval jars of mustard. A woman about my age sitting at the bar turned to me.
“Sorry, I got the last one.”
The Horseradish King reached into the refrigerator, pulled out a jar, and slapped it on the bar in front of me.
“That’ll be $8.”
“Oh, he told me I got the last one,” she said and looked down.
“Heh, it wouldn’t be the first time I lied to a woman,” the charlatan laughed, she giggled, and I took the mustard.
Title photo by augrust via Flickr under Creative Commons