Go ahead, shake ’em up: Tell them about cabinets and quahogs too
Being a native Rhode Islander, I have endured a lifetime of wisecracks and ignorance.
For example, the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations — the official name of Rhode Island — is not the same thing as Long Island. Yes, being a native Rhode Islander who resides in the Midwest, I find myself explaining on occasion: Long Island is part of New York, it reaches into the Atlantic Ocean, and Billy Joel sleeps there.
Rhode Island can be found between Connecticut and Massachusetts, it sort of extends into the Atlantic (people on Block Island, a part of Rhode island, can see Long Island from their front porches) and the Talking Heads started there. On maps, however, the words “Rhode Island” often float alone in the ocean, a victim of the narrow borders of the smallest state in the country.
Maybe that causes the confusion?
Feeling caustic and obnoxious by this point — “caustic and obnoxious” being to Rhode Island what “pleasant and unpretentious” is to Illinois — I continue: Rhode Island was the 13th of the 13 original colonies to ratify the U.S. Constitution. (Rhode Island likes to be difficult.) It is part of the six states that form a region called New England; this is in the Northeast.
By now, people have generally tuned me out — until I get to the state drink, then they sit up.
Coffee milk. That’s the state drink — spiritually and officially (by legislative decree in 1993).
Rhode Island — as well as the south coast of Massachusetts, and a sliver of Maine — loves its coffee milk.
In grade school, I had a choice of cartons: white milk, chocolate milk or coffee milk. After school, many afternoons, I would make myself a glass of coffee milk. This consists of a generous squirt of coffee syrup stirred into a tall cold glass of white milk — creating a sweeter, smokier treat, one so familiar in Rhode Island that, for much of the 20th century, there were competing coffee-syrup empires, Eclipse and Autocrat.
Since then, both companies have been consolidated into the same British tea manufacturer, but the brands themselves remain staples of New England supermarkets.
Regional quirks may be gentrifying, casting off specificity in a wired, flattening age. Yet in Rhode Island, there are small-batch, upscale coffee-milk syrups, there is an Autocrat-branded coffee ice cream, and there’s an Autocrat-infused stout brewed up by Narragansett Beer. And it’s all being distributed and consumed almost exclusively within the borders of the smallest state in the nation.
Even in nearby sections of New England, coffee milk is an obscurity. Never mind the Midwest.
I got married in Michigan, but the caterers, Zingerman’s of Ann Arbor, well-versed in regional foods, arranged for a coffee-milk toast. It’s safe to say half the attendees looked bewildered, as if they were being pushed into a cult ritual. Which of course, they were.
David and Mary Sylvia started Morning Glory Coffee Syrup in Dartmouth, Massachusetts — a short drive from the Rhode Island border — about 17 years ago. David Sylvia said they used his family’s century-old recipe and gave away samples to friends and relatives at the holidays. But explaining coffee milk to anyone outside of southern New England has been tougher.
“I think our biggest struggle is people don’t know what it is,” he told me.
That, frankly, could be the Rhode Island state motto.
For instance, you may be surprised to learn that Rhode Island is not just a unit of measurement for evaluating the size of ice packs in Antarctica. It has about a million residents and is often thought to be part of the United States. It has mountains (okay, hills), lakes, a long Atlantic coastline, farmland, a large(ish) urban center. A few of its leading industries include jewelry manufacturing, tourism and fishing.
There are a lot of Catholics in Rhode Island, but the religion is RedSoxPatriotsCelticsBruins.
As for the native diet, coffee milk is just a small part. The foundational food has always been the quahog, a large meaty clam. (Did you know that the average Rhode Islander is composed of two-thirds shellfish?) Clam cakes are the state’s version of hush puppies.
Clam shells filled with chopped clams then baked into a spicy breaded softball — these are called stuffies. When I was in Little League, concession stands sold stuffies alongside hot dogs.
Rhode Islanders’ hot dogs, however, are slathered in a fine-grain meat sauce, with onion and celery salt, and called hot wieners (not to be confused with coneys).
And their pancakes are jonnycakes, which are made with cornmeal.
Due to generations of Portuguese-Americans, linguica sausage is as familiar in Rhode Island as chorizo. That said, and despite Rhode Island having even more generations of Italian-Americans, as a child I was more familiar with Del’s lemonade — a local slush made with lemon chunks — than Italian ice.
Until I was a teenager, I thought all Americans understood the abiding comfort of pizza strips — which is what Rhode Islanders call their cheese-less, tomato sauce-heavy pizza flatbreads (served only at room temperature).
In other words, Rhode Island cuisine should just be called what it is: peasant food.
“Growing up in Rhode Island, we had coffee milk in the house,” said Jack Chiaro, an associate professor of culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University, in Providence. “Everyone did. As the story goes, before coffee syrups became common in Rhode Island, my parents said their parents would give them bowls of coffee milk and bread during the Depression. Which was common here. It’s all anyone could afford — slices of Italian bread soaked in a Neapolitan-style coffee diluted with milk.”
See, Rhode Island may have sailboats in its bays, fabled 19th-century mansions along its shoreline, and streets lined with 18th-century homesteads, but the state has always been casual and working-class. Pair this with a diminutive size, waves of immigration, and persistent anonymity, and you get local traditions that never traveled far from their origins, that developed in isolation and were allowed to remain undisturbed.
The precise origin of coffee syrup, for example. It’s fuzzy, but certainly a marriage of Italian-American culture and New England thriftiness. Chiaro said early versions were likely made by corner soda fountains in Providence, using milk and sugar strained though leftover coffee grounds, then boiled down to syrup. True or not, that straining is how commercial coffee syrups are still made.
I often tell people, melt a bowl of the richest coffee ice cream you can find, pour in milk, then drink it — that may give some idea of what coffee milk should taste like. But it’s a poor man’s solution to a poor man’s drink. Really, you want the syrup, you need the ritual of the squirting, then the stirring, then tasting, then squirting in some more. Indeed, Autocrat (the gold standard) ships to expat Rhode Islanders all over the world. In Chicago, I keep a bottle of Autocrat in a kitchen cabinet at all times. Should the apocalypse arrive, it will go into a suitcase.
Which reminds me. In Rhode Island, a milkshake is a “cabinet.” Traditionally, the only acceptable flavor is coffee. The ingredients: milk, coffee ice cream and coffee syrup. The name is derived from the place where your blender is stored. You know, I really wish that explanation were better. But at least we’re not Connecticut.
Published at Wed, 10 Oct 2018 02:30:00 +0000