About Regional Flavor
Seafood’s outstanding in the Ocean State: lobster shore dinner, unique creamy-pink chowder with clam cakes on the side, garlicky snail salad that is a local passion. Rhode Island has a hot dog personality unlike any other: Little franks colloquially known as “gaggahs” get topped with spicy meat sauce and are eaten by fours and sixes. Full-bore chicken dinners served in immense dinner halls are a weekend must. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are all well-accompanied by griddle cooked corn pancakes known as jonnycakes (or johnnycakes). Whatever and wherever you eat, have a glass of the official state beverage: coffee milk.
Rhode Island Regional Specialties
Jonnycakes are cornmeal pancakes made with flint corn meal. East of Narragansett Bay, they are plate-wide and flannel-thin with a lacy edge. West of the Bay in South County, extra-thick batter is poured onto the griddle in discs no wider than a coaster. These little cylinders cook long enough to develop a crunchy crust and earthy flavor that begs to be gilded with real maple syrup.
What Italians throughout New England call scungilli, Rhode Islanders know as snails. And while scungilli salad is fairly rare, snail salad is ubiquitous in the Ocean State. The creature in question is a sea snail, what south Floridians might recognize as conch –a very pretty mollusk in a spiral shell. It is boiled, its meat extracted and sliced, then mixed with olives, celery, onion, and spice and sopped in a garlicky marinade.
Rhode Island hot dogs are known as New York System weenies, although there is nothing remotely like them in New York. (In New York City, that is. The Michigan of Plattsburgh, New York, is vaguely similar.) One logical explanation is that nearly all of the Ocean State's wiener depots were opened by cooks who had worked at America's frankfurter mothership, Nathan's of Coney Island. Even if that's true, however, the fundamental mystery remains: where, when, and why did the hot dog, once a New York sausage with a German accent, get topped with distinctively Greek-seasoned sauce and proliferate all across the country (except New York) as a Coney Island weenie? Whatever their genesis, Rhode Island's small pink links – always known as weenies, never hot dogs or frankfurters – are smothered with fine-grind beef sauce that is moderately spicy and maybe a little sweet. Yellow mustard, chopped raw onions and a shot of celery salt complete the picture. The "system" element of the name means they are made in a systematic way by lining up multiple dogs in buns and dressing them assembly-line style. Old-time counter men can array a few dozen Little Rhodies from wrist to shoulder, adding sauce and condiments with lightning speed. Hence the common local description of New York system dining: wieners up the arm.