A Little Place with a Big Culinary Culture
A Journey into Hidden America
Rhode Island may be the smallest state in the Union, but is sure packs in a lot. It is a beautiful state with a variety of cultural, natural, and historical offerings. In the culinary world, the presence of Johnson and Wales university has made it hothouse of experimentation and innovation.
But a unique culinary culture is nothing new in these parts. It stretches back centuries - starting with Johnnycakes.
Johnycakes are a cornmeal flatbread. An early American staple food, it is prepared on the Atlantic coast from Newfoundland to Jamaica.
Kenyon Corn Meal Company, a gristmill in Usquepaug, Rhode Island, dates back to the early 1700's. It continues to make the cornmeal today in a building that itself dates itself from 1886.Johnnycake breakfasts remain a community institution in many locations in the state. The johnnycake is a Rhode Island staple.
Another indigenous staple to Rhode Island is the pizza strip -also known as Bakery Pizza. This pizza is sold in bakeries, not pizza parlors. It’s cheeseless, heavy on the tomato sauce, and eaten at room temperature. Simply they are a thick doughy base—almost like a focaccia bread—slathered with fresh tomato sauce and baked in large trays. It’s more like “tomato bread” than anything resembling pizza. Perhaps different than what you might be used to. But quite good - the price is right at 99 cents a strip.
The name might confuse but another longstanding culinary tradition is Providence is called the New York System. They are hot wieners.
The name New York System (and less commonly Coney Island System) appeared in Rhode Island in the early 1900s as a marketing strategy when hot dogs were closely associated with New York's Coney Island.By the early 1940s a distinctly Rhode Island product and preparation had evolved among Providence's Greek community, popularized within the state such that the "wieners" served by New York Systems today bear little resemblance to the traditional Coney Island hot dog. Restaurateurs continue to use the name as a way to advertise this particular local cuisine.
The traditional wiener is made with a small, thin hot dog made of veal and pork, giving it a different taste from a traditional beef hot dog, served in a steamed bun, and topped with celery salt, yellow mustard, chopped onions, and a seasoned meat sauce (the spices vary by vendor but commonly include cumin, paprika, chili powder, and allspice).
The question of the oldest New York System is a matter of some debate, with multiple parties making the claim. One of the most widely known is the Olneyville New York System, opened in 1946 and named for Providence's Olneyville neighborhood, but it was the original owner's extended family who operated the Original New York System from 1927 in the Smith Hill neighborhood. Another institution, Sparky's Coney Island System [now] of East Providence, claims an earlier, albeit contested date of 1915.
As a child, my parents would serve me something we called Coffee Milk so that I could fee like a grown up. It was milk with just a bit of coffee. Rhode Island has a coffee milk, but it is not of the stuff I had as a child.
Here Coffee milk is a drink made by mixing coffee syrup or coffee extract and milk together in a manner similar to chocolate milk. It is the official state drink in Rhode Island. Its origins date back to the 19th century of the Italian immigrant population in Providence, Rhode Island. Around the late 1800s to early 1900s, approximately 55,000 Italian immigrants traveled to Providence. The large influx of immigrants, of which Italians were the largest group, led to an introduction of their traditions and customs to the state. One of their culinary traditions was drinking very sweetened coffee with milk. Eventually, it is believed that this led to the creation of coffee milk in these immigrant households. The development of diners and soda fountains brought coffee milk to the public. The first coffee syrup is thought to have been produced by a soda fountain operator who sweetened leftover coffee grounds with milk and sugar. This syrup was mixed into glasses of milk to create coffee milk.
Due to the popularity of the product, coffee syrup was bottled and sold by merchants. The first mass-produced coffee syrup was introduced by the Silmo Packing Company of New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1932. In 1938, Warwick, Rhode Island-based Eclipse Food Products began heavily promoting its own coffee syrup product, with Lincoln, Rhode Island's Autocrat Coffee coming to market in the 1940s. Autocrat purchased long-time competitor Eclipse in 1991 and today produces both brands of syrup. Autocrat is claimed to be the most popular brand of coffee syrup in the state of Rhode Island.
The public loved the idea of coffee milk and, especially due to the large population of immigrants, the popularity of coffee milk began to rise. In 1993, politicians took notice. After having a competition between coffee milk and Del's Lemonade, Rhode Island Legislature voted to change the state drink. On July 29, 1993, Rhode Island named coffee milk their official state drink. As coffee milk took off in Rhode Island, neighboring states also took notice of it. Additionally, local businesses in Rhode Island took advantage of this growth of popularity. In December 2013, the Narragansett Brewing Company partnered with Autocrat Coffee to market a limited edition "coffee milk stout". In the summer of 2015, Warwick Ice Cream worked with Autocrat to begin producing coffee milk ice cream.
We have not here spoken of chowder. It is a popular item and one that carries much passion. We save it for a future posting. For now, we note that in the midst of New England - home of a milk based white clam chowder there is also to be found here a Rhode Island Chowder, a clear broth loaded with potatoes, bacon, and either cherry-stones or quahogs.