grapevineA Taste of Rhode Islandgrapevine


Weaned on Coffee Syrup

What's coffee milk?" my husband asked the first time I mentioned it.

"It's like chocolate milk," I explained, "but with coffee syrup in it rather than chocolate syrup."

He asked, after digesting [no pun intended] that, "What's coffee syrup?"

Remember the first time you set foot out of Rhode Island and discovered they didn't stock coffee milk in the convenience stores (and didn't call them "milk stores" to boot)? It was a bit of a shock, almost as big a shock as asking an "outtastater" where the bubbler was and having him respond with a blank stare, or worse, a laugh. You learned to say "water fountain" very quickly after you crossed the border.

The shock is understandable. We grow up on coffee milk from the first moments as children when we sniff the heady and heavenly smell of coffee brewing. It's one of those safe, warm scents, like chicken soup warming or bread baking, and we plead, "Mom, can we have a sip? Just a sip? Please?"

But no, "it's not good for you." If you are lucky, however, Mom spoons some coffee into your milk and the faint taste makes you imagine you are drinking the real thing, albeit cold.

To satisfy the coffee cravings, Mom eventually brings home a bottle of coffee syrup. Here's where a matter of taste comes in. There were children like myself, who savored the darker, thicker, more "coffee" taste of Eclipse. When stirred into your coffee, it made it a rich brown and the coffee taste was intense. Plus to me it was familiar: we passed the big brick and glass Eclipse plant on our way down Route 2, where it sat next to the Cranston Drive-In and cater-corner to the old Fiore Pontiac dealership where my uncle worked. Back then Eclipse made all types of flavors, not just vanilla and coffee and strawberry, but lime and orange and lemon as well. Lime-flavored syrup spooned into cold water made as good a summer drink as coffee syrup in milk did. Later, when the fruit-flavored Eclipse syrups vanished, we had Zarex (now late and lamented) to perform the same service.

Other kids were just as rabid for the flavor of Autocrat coffee syrup, which I found too thin and overly sweet. However, until my parents changed to decaffeinated coffee, the coffee de jour was always Autocrat. How comforting to smell it brewing, watching glass cap of the percolator for the first "bloop" which meant it was "perking," especially on cold winter mornings when Dad's first duty was to don an old, thick grey coat and hood and clear the snow from the driveway. When he came in he smelled of cold air, snow, and the gasoline scent of the snowblower that was soon overwhelmed by the rich smell of brewing Autocrat. And I loved the container with the little bird on it ("A swallow will tell you...").

Then there was always the matter of coffee ice cream. As with the coffee syrup, at one time at the Rhode Island state line it just stopped. Even Howard Johnson's with its massive selection of 28 flavors didn't carry it at one time. You could find it in some Massachusetts and Connecticut border towns, but that was about it. (Mom suffered the same problem, only with maple walnut ice cream; it too did not cross borders.) Today it's slightly better: Baskin-Robbins carries their own coffee flavor, which they call "jamoca," although it isn't available all the time at all stores. Haagen Dazs also offers a coffee flavor, and so does Gorin's, although the latter is usually unsatisfying, with a weak taste and ice chips sprinkled liberally throughout. Atlanta's Mayfield Dairy makes a coffee-flavored ice cream, as does another Southern vendor, Blue Bunny, which actually has all the strong flavor of an Eclipse syrup coffee milk. It is almost worth going to the small Chinese buffet nearby knowing you can help yourself to a heaping bowl of Blue Bunny coffee ice cream for dessert.

Perhaps someday coffee milk will follow in the steps of coffee ice cream and make inroads into an unknowing world where chocolate milk is king. Till then we can only order those plastic bottles of coffee syrup online or bring them from home, and wait in anticipation...

 

At the Sign of the Lemon

Once upon a time only great big stores had air conditioning.

Walk to the local bakery or the local variety store in the summer and sure enough the front door, the back door, and any windows available would be propped, pulled, and shoved open. Big standing fans, blades spinning to form a solid-looking silver disk, roared inside, attempting to cool the perspiring salespeople and customers. In a few places big ceiling fans rotated at top speed, Casablanca on caffeine. When you opened the big ice chest to get out a Popsicle you often lingered over the gaping door in a vain hope to absorb the chill of the freezer. If you were desperate enough, you leaned a cheek or an arm against the glass of the meat freezers in the grocery store.

You walked home only to find it equally hot despite all doors and windows standing open. Men home from work loosened their collars and stood in front of the screens hoping for a breeze, as did the women cooking supper. Box fans were set out, tripping hazards in the middle of the floor, but the only relief. You dressed in the least clothes possible without being scandalous and fanned yourself with the first thing at hand, whether it be last week's church bulletin or the TV section from the Sunday paper. The cellar usually was cooler, and many families decamped there for days on end. Some cellars even had kitchens built in just for those hard summer months. Folks in three-deckers often had something called a "summer kitchen" out on the back porch--but there you had to share airspace with the flies and mosquitoes.

Nirvana would come in the form of a walk down to a small storefront that wasn't air conditioned either. Or else a small bell would beckon you.

Not the ice cream man, the Del's Lemonade man.

On the very hottest of hot days, even the cold ice cream didn't help. The thick taste settled on your tongue and clotted your throat instead. (Popsicles worked better, but they were, almost by definition in those days, a "kid's treat." And they dripped on your clothing and left horrendous orange, red or purple stains. You didn't see adults eating popsicles much.) A glass of lemonade, milk, or juice from the refrigerator certainly helped. But sometimes even that wasn't cold enough; the appliance's motor ran and ran against the heat and the food was kept edible and the drinks cool, if not cold.

So as the sun became a boiling red sphere on the horizon and the guys in the athletic field raced from base to base despite the heat and people were clad in shorts and sleeveless shirts just to be able to breathe, you took the sweaty walk down to the little storefront, illuminated by the big vapor lamps in the baseball field across the street and the lights from the parking lot of the Burger Chef on the corner.

Some nights the line might be ten to twelve people deep: teenagers, young parents with strollers, elderly couples, a lone man or woman or two. Behind the counter the attendants were working as fast as they could to fill the paper cups with the sour/sweet slush that tasted like nothing else in the world.

The storefront closed one day. If you were desperate enough, you might climb in the car and drive the fifteen minutes out to Route 5 near the drive in and join the queue there. The ride was cooling and at stoplights you could drink in the breeze and hear the crickets chirping from backyards. In the end it was worth it.

Later the Del's truck started hanging out where the guys were playing baseball and you could run across the busy street with coins clasped in your sticky hand.

There were other frozen lemonades--Mr. Nick's and New England--and they had their devotees, but none quite equalled that cup of Del's. One was too sugary, the other too watery, one of them was grainier as well. There were Icee-type machines and SnoCones, but the bits of shaved ice were rough to the tongue. Del's was smooth as liquid and cool and juicy, not too sweet, not too sour, and there was always some lemon, from a little sliver to an actual small wedge, to give it that extra fillip of sour. As you drank, the relentless heat ebbed for a moment and the cool spread from your mouth and throat. Should an errant warm breeze come up at that moment, one could almost shiver.

There are more refuges from the heat now, but surely none of them have ever tasted as good...

 

Doughboys Forever, Pizza Never

Somehow, even being Italian and growing up on Italian food, I missed the pizza cult.

It's everywhere today: Pizza Hut, Papa Gino's, Papa John's, Donato's, Pizzeria Uno. School cafeterias that wouldn't have thought to serve "junk food" like that in the 1960s now have "pizza days" and "create your own toppings."

Probably one reason was the cheese. I didn't mind what I called "bakery pizza," those thick doughy squares you got at the bakery shop, topped with lots of tomato and minimal cheese, although I coveted the crusty ends and there were far too few of them. (Some bakeries even cut the edges off and tossed them away--heresy to a bread lover!) I have a real problem with mozzarella--the thick white goo reminds me of mucus--and I goggle a bit at these commercials that push "double cheese!" Single is quite bad enough.

Mostly it was because I had my heart stolen at an early age.

Really, who wanted pizza--heavens, if I wanted something with tomato and cheese there was all the macaroni I could eat at home, and with Mom's homemade gravy, too, not the sugar-sweetened stuff they served in bottles!--when you could have a piece of dough, deep fried until it was golden brown, and then sprinkled with sugar? Other places called 'em "fried dough," or "elephant ears."

In my own ears, the sweetest sound of the world was the word "doughboys."

It may have helped that they were associated with special occasions. Mom didn't make them at home very often. She tried not to fry things, the exception being fish on Friday (and once McDonald's came to town and started offering fried fish sandwiches, even that stopped). Occasionally as a Sunday supper surprise she would whip some up.

But mostly if you were eating a doughboy, you were somewhere special.

It might be a summer Sunday night at one of the church feasts. You joined a line with at least thirty other people, slowly snaking along as the sultry summer air wound about you, eyes casting about the gaily-lighted feast grounds with its game booths and popcorn and drinks stands. As you approached the counter, someone asked you how many and you handed them your money. Often they had just taken a break from the cooking and their hands were sugary and slick. Now you inched down the counter which was just oilcloth (if that much) covering boards on sawhorses, behind which were men and women shaping dough into flat platters and tossing them into big fry pans.

At the end of the line someone would hand you your doughboys. It was wrapped in a paper napkin because it was piping hot, smelling of good bread dough and fresh oil and liberally sprinkled with table sugar. (Somewhat later vendors started putting powdered sugar, or even honey on them. I'm a purist. Doughboys need table sugar!)

A perfect doughboy crunched a bit when you bit into it, then you had a mouthful of deliciously sweetened chewy dough. Alas they were never all perfect: many came out undercooked, overcooked, soggy from oil used too many times. Still, the majority of the time it was just what you wanted.

But "let's go get doughboys" usually meant Oakland Beach. On some late summer afternoons, it might mean inching your way down the weed-lined road that was once the path to the area, behind other cars bearing other people with the same idea. The restaurants there then were mostly old-fashioned shacks, ones that boarded up in October and opened in April, lucky if they got a coat of whitewash once a year.

Once you parked, then came the line, which could snake down the sidewalk toward the rocky path that led up to the shack. There could be thirty or more people standing in line; they wouldn't all be buying something, for often it was a sunburned dad, a touseled-haired mother with sunglasses fruitlessly trying to protect some part of her face, and three or four wiggling, noisy children. One would always be wet to the waist, having pushed and pushed at the admonition "don't go in over your ankles" to the limit. Another would be crying. Usually the smallest was a toddler in arms, half asleep, or sucking his thumb. And it took a while because every one of the thirty wanted something to eat, and even though the crew worked hard, it took a while to sort out clamcakes, doughboys, drinks, and hot dogs. You fidgeted in line, opened your arms to the cooling breeze if one existed, fanned yourself with anything at hand if you didn't, and inched along.

Finally you were handed bottles of soda and the precious white paper bag already stained from its cargo. Sometimes you had to wait to get back to the car to start eating, Mom being that insistent to hand around napkins.

If you'd gone after supper, it might be sundown, the rosy glow of the sinking sun glinting off the homes around the water, the water itself. The breeze rose, cooling hot foreheads and shoulder blades and legs. Sea gulls circled above, crying out. On the sand the last insistent small child of the day squatted down for a last dig at the stony sand, hoping that shiny object might be a treasure. The few couples left walking on the beach hoped it might last forever.

Whatever it might be, it was always paradise...

 

Now That's Italian!

Sure I've eaten at Olive Garden. Granted, it's a chain, but most of them are pretty good. Most of them even know how to cook pasta al dente rather than that limp stuff handed to you in restaurants and school lunches that serve so-called "spaghetti."

But I'll never make the mistake of thinking Olive Garden is real Italian cooking.

That came out of our mothers' and grandmothers' and aunts' kitchens. It was made carefully on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings. The macaroni ("pasta" was the upscale word) might be from Prince--remember Mario running home in those commercials on Wednesday, "Prince Spaghetti Day"?--or Ronzoni, or it might even be homemade egg pasta, either run through "the machine" or hand cut. (Grandma always hand cut. Who trusted those newfangled machines?)

The gravy--otherwise known to the "med-i-gones" as "tomato sauce" or "spaghetti sauce"--actually started in September.

Sunday rides were usually reserved for pleasure, but one in September always had a business aspect. Back in the days when Scituate Avenue wasn't one big housing development, the road was lined with farms and the prerequisite farm stands. In September, bushels of red tomatoes stood beside the other vegetables, glowing scarlet in the late summer sun.

If we were lucky, the first place we stopped at might have the best tomatoes at a fair price. They had to be swollen ripe and sweet-looking, as if one could just pick one up and eat it like the fruit it is. Some were too green, some were too wizened; it might take half a dozen vegetable stands to find just the right tomatoes at the right price. Then at least two bushels were hefted into the trunk of the car.

Once home, they had to be sorted. The ripe ones went back into the bushels, any with a trace of green were lined up under the porch windows to turn the same bursting red as the others.

Two days would be taken up with tomatoes. From the cellar Mom would bring up the big grinding machine with its wide mouth and hand-turned crank. She also brought up the big enameled stock pot that would hold gallons of future tomato preserve. Each tomato was then washed, "bad spots" and the stem cut off, and then cut into two-inch (or less) square pieces and put into a clean bushel lined with an old sheet. The house became redolent with the rich scent of tomato.

Cup by cup the cut-up tomatoes were hand-fed into the wide mouth of the machine, fingers pushing them down but avoiding the long metal grinder, as someone turned the long metal crank with its wooden handle worn smooth by years of preserving. The skin of the ground tomatoes came out the end of a long "trumpet" to be caught in a bowl. The "trumpet" had small holes in its length and the pulp and juice squeezed out from them, to be caught in the big stock pot perched under it. The skin and seeds and extra pulp expelled from the end was put through the machine again, and if the tomatoes had been particularly juicy, a third time, to get every inch of tomato goodness.

It was always warm when we did it and as much as I loved Mom's gravy, how I hated those tomatoes: endless hours of feeding bits into the machine and getting covered in tomato seeds and sticky hands and then all the mess to clean up afterwards in late summer heat. For the kitchen would get warmer before it was cool again: once full, the stock pot would be hefted on the stove. Mom added salt and fresh basil leaves. Once she might have added pepper, but I hated it and then Dad was diagnosed with diverticulitis. Pepper could be added later, at table, something that suited me fine.

One thing she did not add was sugar. It was Mom's vociferous comment that sugar belonged nowhere in tomato sauce. If canned and jarred sauces had sugar "to cut the acid," as was said, it was certainly because they were using the cheapest tomatoes, those left over when the fresh ones went to market for salads. We bought the salad tomatoes at salad tomato prices, and they rewarded us with savory gravy that needed no sweetening.

Now the mixture was boiled until Mom was sure any bacteria were long dead, and ladle by ladle, the hot, richly scented tomato was poured into Mason jars, capped, and brought downstairs, one jar for each week of the year.

On Saturdays one jar was brought up and the magic begun. First tomato paste was mixed in--no-sugar-added brand, of course!--and then Mom would add meat. Occasionally we had meatballs, but none of us were really fond of them. Instead, Mom placed nice chunks of browned pork and beef into the pot. When I began making my own gravy using no-sugar-added jarred sauce as a base, I asked my mother which cut of the pork she used. She couldn't answer me. Going to Italian groceries all her life, all she needed to do was ask the butcher for "pork for the gravy" and he gave it to her.

(We never did find out what part of the pig it was from. I ended up using stew pork or the extra pork chop out of an uneven batch wrapped for the freezer.)

The big treat, eventually reserved for holidays and special occasions because they were so much work and ultimately so expensive, were the braggioles. Take a thin cut of meat, less than a quarter of an inch thick (fajita steaks might be an equivalent). They will be about eight inches long and about six inches wide. Now fill the interior. You could put about anything in a braggiole: spinach, cheese, cold cuts, garlic. Mom figured inflicting me with spinach once a week was enough and didn't use it; I hated cheese, so she put only a minimal amount in for "taste." Mostly hers were stuffed with chopped up cold cuts, bits of the rest of the meat surrounding the braggiole, and fresh garlic cloves cut into bits. Then it was rolled up into a neat container, tied with string, browned with the other meats, and then simmered for a long Saturday afternoon, in the gravy. At serving time the string was snipped and removed.

You could keep your veal scallopini, fettucine alfredo, and all the gourmet Italian dishes that trumpet their names on restaurant menus. Seated about the family table on Sundays, flaking the tender pork and beef with your fork, biting down into the mixed fill of the braggiole, eating the firm-yet-tender pasta, and "zooping" a bit of freshly-baked Italian bread from the bakery into the homemade gravy was more delightful than the promises of Utopia. We wouldn't know what it was really like until we met St. Peter at the Gate, but surely Mom's gravy was just a little taste of Heaven...

New York Times article about Rhode Island food

 

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