HOME | IN THE MAGAZINE | BACK ISSUES | MAY/JUNE 2011
The hot dogs at Olneyville New York System, a culinary landmark in Providence, Rhode Island, are difficult enough for the uninitiated to comprehend. First of all, they’re never called anything but wieners, and they typically come with meat sauce, mustard, raw onions and celery salt, unless you ask for them to be served otherwise (which you would never do).
But the wieners’ traditional liquid accompaniment is even harder to fathom. It’s coffee milk. The simple but iconic mixture is nothing more than super-sweet coffee syrup and ice-cold milk. Greg Stevens, the third-generation owner of New York System, says coffee milk outsells every other beverage he offers eight to one. “People assume that hot wieners and coffee milk won’t go together,” he says. “But they try it and find it works somehow. It’s one of those things.”
For a state so small, Rhode Island has more than its share of idiosyncratic culinary traditions. Del’s Lemonade, a tart, semi-frozen drink sold at stands throughout the warm months, has been an Ocean State favorite since 1948. Cabinet is the name given by residents to a milkshake-like blend of milk, syrup and ice cream. But coffee milk is the quencher that so grips Rhode Island’s shared consciousness that it was declared the official state drink in 1993. (A challenge by Del’s advocates was successfully beaten back.)
One can order the off-white beverage at old school institutions like New York System and Haven Brothers, the 123-year-old diner on wheels that parks outside City Hall every night. But mostly coffee milk is made at home, with people pledging their undying fealty to one of two leading coffee syrups: Autocrat and Eclipse. Much is made of the rivalry, but it’s a battle fought exclusively on the consumer side; both products have been made by Autocrat since the 1990s.
The conventional wisdom is that Eclipse is slightly stronger and Autocrat is sweeter and smoother. But better not take that to a blind taste test. “You would never tell this to a Rhode Islander,” says Richard M. Field Jr., the fourth-generation chairman and president of Autocrat, “but if you mixed up glasses of Autocrat and Eclipse, you’d probably have trouble telling them apart.”
Much like its milk-, syrup- and seltzer-made New York cousin, the egg cream, the origins of coffee milk are obscure. Some think the concoction can be traced to Providence’s immigrant Italian population, which, it is reasoned, were in the habit of heavily sweetening their bitter coffee. This habit, the theory goes, eventually migrated from home kitchens to diners and drug stores. Field, however, thinks it possibly goes back further than that. “Iced coffee is nothing new to New Englanders,” he said. “Drinking cold coffee drinks has always been an acceptable item.”
Whatever the wellspring of coffee milk, it was popular enough by the 1930s for a company called Silmo Packing Co. in New Bedford, Massachusetts, to come out with a commercially produced coffee syrup. Eclipse Food Products of Warwick, Rhode Island, followed with its version in 1938, and Autocrat entered the market in the ‘40s.
Coffee milk’s wild popularity in Providence notwithstanding, the drink has never been able to graduate to national appeal. It’s a Rhode Island thing. “It certainly is unique to this area,” said Field. “We sell 20 million servings a year in a state with 1.5 milllion people.”
For Paula Vogel, the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright who has long resided in Providence, the drink’s appeal is hardly mysterious. “Long before Red Bull and the other monster drinks,” she said, “Rhode Islanders knew the wisdom of joining sweetness to stimulation.”