British-born, New York-based freelance journalist Mark Ellwood has spent most of his life traveling the globe in pursuit of the finest fashion, furnishings and food. In this brand new series for Slashfood, he highlights the distinctive regional cuisines of his adopted country.
Photo: image415, flickr
Rhode Island is like a gourmet Galapagos, a tiny patch of water-hemmed land that's evolved a separate culture from its surroundings. There are state-specific brands like Del's Lemonade and Autocrat Coffee Syrup, Rhody recipes for jonnycakes and stuffies and even localized tweaks on American staples; only in Rhode Island could clear clam chowder come with an add-to-taste jug of heavy cream to placate visiting Bostonians.
Given locals' culinary passion, it's no wonder this is where the diner was invented by Walter Scott in 1872, who piled up a horse-drawn wagon with pies and sandwiches and stationed it in front of the Providence Journal offices.
How did the smallest state in the union -- barely 1,000 square miles of land -- develop such aggressive, idiosyncratic tastes? In part, thanks to its origins.
"We have this very independent spirit; it's historic, going right back to Williams," explains Linda Beaulieu, author of "The Providence and Rhode Island Cookbook." Indeed, Roger Williams founded the outpost as a rebellion against the Massachusetts Bay Colony's hardline conformism, and that rebellious independence has ricocheted down through Rhode Island's history -- and menus. "Chain restaurants don't do well here at all. In fact a year or two ago, the Red Lobster closed -- people just didn't support it."
Stuffies and quahogs, anyone? Explore more of Rhode Island's culinary offerings after the jump. Rhode Islanders were locavores before there was a word for it. When it comes to food, they think, eat, buy and cook local. Here's a rundown of some of the state's idiosyncratic eats. Please to add to the list in the comments below.
Local Brand Del's Lemonade Founded in Cranston, the purveyors of this frozen lemonade claim it's a direct descendant of a recipe from Naples more than 100 years ago. Whatever its origins, the slushy mix is delicious. Dotted around the state, you'll spot branches of Del's via its roadside lemon signs.
Local Brand Glee Gum It's an all-natural, sweetener- & preservative-free gum first introduced just over a decade ago, made from chicle tree sap the old-fashioned way. It's harvested sustainably from Central American rainforests and even the packaging is biodegradable.
Local Delicacy New York System Wieners These short, slow-cooked hot dogs, served with a garlicky, ground beef sauce spiced with nutmeg, are usually known as "hot wienies." Order them "three all the way," so they come in a trio slathered in almost every condiment on the tabletop.
Local Delicacy Quahogs The rest of the world may call them hard-shell clams, but stick to Quahogs here. They're best enjoyed as a stuffie -- a quahog stuffed with bread crumbs and extra minced clam, then baked. Another option is sinkers, which are deep-fried chopped clam cakes. Their mecca is Flo's Clam Shack in Middletown.
Local Delicacy Jonnycakes This patty is made from cornmeal, salt and water like a silver dollar pancake and though once known across New England, it's largely a Rhode Island staple now. Here, the patty is sometimes sweetened with molasses, a legacy of the state's clearinghouse role on the slave trade circuit. Make some at home using meal and recipes from the historic mill, Kenyon's. They're delicious sopping up the juice from baked beans.
Local Delicacy Cabinets and Milkshakes The rest of the world call this a milkshake. Linda Beaulieu says the name is down to the old-fashioned soda fountains where the machine that made the shakes was housed in a wooden cabinet. "I guess people would gesture over and say I want one of those, and that somehow turned into 'Get me a cabinet!'" A "milkshake" Rhode Island-style comes sans ice cream.
Local Tweaks Clam Chowder Local foodies can't even agree on a statewide recipe. In the northern part, chowder is red ("Italians and Portuguese put a tomato in almost everything they make," chuckles Beaulieu) while to the south it's clear ("A mouthful of salt water is almost what it tastes like"). Either way, the soup is cream-free, a sacrilege to fellow New Englanders. So much so, Beaulieu says, that in the past restaurants would offer a small jug of cream on the side to calm chary Bostonians.
Beaulieu also suggests that Rhode Island's dominant foodie credo, "Any flavor as long as it's coffee" dates back to that time, too. "When people didn't have much money, they wouldn't even throw away the coffee grounds, they would recycle them," she explains, "And that's how coffee milk started -- it was a way of flavoring the milk."
Diner historian Richard Gutman isn't so sure. "Coffee as a syrup or flavoring became popular in the late 1800s, in soda fountains, but I have a book of recipes from Boston, 45 minutes away, and they don't offer coffee milk."
Either way, coffee-something was a staple here long before it reached the rest of America. Bristol-based historian Joan Roth recalls her first road trip after World War II when she asked a Southern diner waitress for coffee ice cream. "She said to me 'You want coffee and ice cream?'" Roth chuckles, recalling how the server brought dished-out vanilla and a coffee on the side.
Ice cream is yet another patriotic part of Rhode Island's foodie identity and the best example of the ferocious pride placed in culinary traditions here. There was an outcry recently when local chainlet the Newport Creamery -- which has 11 stores in the state and is known for its straw-clogging Awful Awful milkshakes -- moved production facilities away from Middletown.
"When a local place does pull up its roots and go somewhere else, that is scandalous. People don't like it at all," Gutman notes. But where did the Creamery's ice cream factory move? Just a few miles away -- across the state line, to southeastern Massachusetts.
Mark Ellwood writes for the New York Times, Travel + Leisure and the New York Daily News and is the author of several Rough Guides. His next installment explores the culinary delights of the Greater Cincinnati area.