Summer is road-trip season, so we're taking a culinary tour of America. But because Portland is a city of immigrants from other states, we don't have to leave town to do it. We're traveling to 50 Portland restaurants to try one distinctive food from each state. Our 50 Plates tour continues with coffee milk from Rhode Island, which joined the union on May 29, 1790.
The state: Rhode Island is the Ocean State, thus designated because it boasts a great deal of coastline, and because it will probably be underwater once sea levels rise. Not a state to be deterred by its itty-bitty size, Rhode Island makes up for what it lacks in square mileage with population density (we’re number two!), the number of Dunkin’ Donuts shops per capita (we’re number one!), the longest official name of all the states (the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations) and mafia activity (and other such related fun).
The food: Made from milk and coffee syrup—a hyper-sweet coffee concentrate, basically a caffeinated answer to Hershey’s syrup—coffee milk is a sugary potable best likened to a Starbucks bottled frappuccino. With extra sugar. Its provenance is debated, but it’s generally believed to have originated in the early 20th century with the state’s Italian immigrants. A company across the border in New Bedford, Mass., was actually the first to make coffee syrup for commercial distribution, in 1932, but lil’ Rhody got its monopoly back a few years later, and today almost all of the state’s coffee syrup comes, perhaps fittingly, from a company called Autocrat. In 1993, the state legislature voted 49-36 to make coffee milk the official state beverage, and it can be found in diners, donut shops and (to my best recollection) at Brown University’s dining halls, next to the spouts dispensing one percent and chocolate.
Other dishes considered and rejected: Pizza strips, Del’s lemonade, hot wieners (better known as gaggers and best known as “gaggahs”), johnnycakes, stuffed quahogs.
Get it from: For $11, you can buy a bottle of Dave’s Coffee Syrup at Quin Candy Shoppe (1022 W Burnside St., 971-300-8395, quincandy.com) in the Union Way mini-arcade. Made on Friendship Street (awwwwwwwwww!) in Westerly, R.I., it’s got the viscosity and color of molasses. Unlike Autocrat, it doesn’t list high-fructose corn syrup as its first ingredient: This one’s just cane sugar and coffee made from specially roasted Brazilian beans. The resulting beverage—stir about three tablespoons into a glass of very cold milk—is as sweet as I remember sipping at the Sharpe Refectory. It might be a smidge stronger on the palate than Autocrat, but it still barely qualifies as gateway drug material. In the words of a co-worker: “This tastes like the kind of coffee ordered by people I don’t understand.” Another, though, was quick to add: “But it’s still kinda good.”
Click on the map to see each state's distinctive food and where to get it in Portland.