Ocean State eats

From clear clam chowder to coffee milk, Rhode Island's culinary traditions stand out.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
Jigger's Diner in East Greenwich, R.I., is ready for the morning crowd.
Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
Breakfast, Little Rhody style: Johnnycakes – a pancakelike food made of ground white corn – are a state specialty.

To the Rhode Islander outsider, life in Little Rhody is seemingly strange, especially when it comes to the Ocean State's culinary culture. Here, customers order grinders, dynamites, and New York System wieners. They chow down on clear clam chowder; sip coffee milk and Del's lemonade; and dine on stuffies, doughboys, clam cakes, and johnnycakes.

I thought deciphering the Rhode Island accent was difficult, but learning the differences between a stuffie and a johnnycake was just as challenging. These words were foreign to me. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs where I munched on deep-dish pizza, Italian beef, and Chicago-style hot dogs.

In Illinois, fresh seafood was rarely on the menu, and the only body of water we had near my house was Lake Michigan. Now, I was a mere 30 minutes from the ocean where littleneck clams suddenly appeared on every menu and I felt the urge to reach for a dictionary.

Like most Chicagoans, I take my food seriously and hold the greasy slices of pizza and poppy-seed hot-dog buns close to my Midwestern heart. But when I moved to Rhode Island this summer, I realized that I had two choices: I could either pine away for my hometown fare or I could become a Rhode Islander, bite by bite. So just like any curious foodie, I embarked on a culinary quest to learn more about Rhode Island's quirky foods that make the Ocean State so unique.

On my first full day of culinary exploration, I cruise down to the beach and make my way to Iggy's Doughboys and Chowder House. This is a summer hot spot: It's right on the ocean and the creamy clam chowder is chock full of potatoes and clams. I dig into my stuffie – a quahog or large clam shell, stuffed with bread crumbs and chopped up quahogs – and top it off with hot sauce.

After another spoonful of chowder and a bite of a chewy clam cake – a puffy, fried dough filled with clams – I barely miss deep-dish pizza. And then comes dessert: doughboys, deep fried and rolled in sugar – they're like a cross between a doughnut and a funnel cake. I realize I could get used to dining on fresh seafood along the ocean, and I begin to understand why some Rhode Islanders stay here their entire lives.

Perhaps this, too, is another reason why Rhode Island food often fails to transcend state borders and why the Ocean State holds so many foods as its claim to fame. Or could it be the family recipes that are passed down from generation to generation?

During visits to Rhode Island before I moved here, I began to notice culinary traditions at family events and holidays. The subtle differences were everywhere. At Thanksgiving, I remember digging my fork into a pile of stuffing loaded with chouriço, or Portuguese sausage, and sitting down to stuffies at a football game at my boyfriend's parents' house where my taste buds awoke to a cultural smorgasbord.

Of course, I'll never forget the first time I opened a box of pizza strips – just crust and sauce – and wondered "Where's the cheese?" Or when I asked for a sub for delivery and the man on the other end of the phone promptly corrected me by saying "grinder."

I laugh every time I remember feeling awfully full after having an Awful Awful, an oversize milkshake tagged with the slogan "Awful big, awful good."

"We have Italian lemonade back in Chicago," I boasted, nudging my boyfriend's arm before I tried Del's Lemonade. Still, he insisted that this lemonade was the best. Naturally, I put up a food fight – until I succumbed to the slushy, refreshing drink and, eventually, all six of its flavors, ranging from classic lemonade to watermelon.

Even my first trip to the grocery store in Rhode Island was a unique experience when I glanced up at the shelves and spotted Autocrat, a sweet coffee syrup Rhode Islanders use to make coffee milk (the state's official drink) and coffee cabinets, a coffee-flavored milkshake.

This unusual fixation with coffee seems to span the whole state. So to fit in with the other Rhode Islanders, I bought my own bottle of coffee syrup and placed it in my dorm fridge in Boston, much to the confusion of my roommate. Although I only drank one glass of coffee milk during my freshman year of college, I was still proud of my Rhode Island keepsake.

Still, I have to admit, one Rhode Island delicacy – the New York System weiner – scared me because I was confident that nothing could top a Chicago-style hot dog. In the Windy City, we top our dogs with onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, mustard, relish, sport peppers, and celery salt. Asking for ketchup would be the ultimate culinary sin, and we don't hide our hot dogs under a pile of chili or cheese.

When I heard that New York System wieners are topped with spiced ground beef, onions, and mustard, I shuddered at the thought of tainting my memory of the beloved hot dogs I grew up eating in Chicago. And when I pulled up to the wiener stand in Cranston, and the cook behind the counter stacked the buns and dogs on his arms (I'm told this is part of the charm of the New York System wiener establishment), I cringed a bit before I took a bite.

But to my surprise, I actually liked them, and for a moment I thought, hey, maybe Rhode Island food isn't so bad, after all.

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