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 (weâre number two!), the number of Dunkinâ Donuts shops per capita (weâre 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 syrupâa hyper-sweet coffee concentrate, basically a caffeinated answer to Hersheyâs syrupâcoffee milk is a sugary potable best likened to a Starbucks bottled frappuccino. With extra sugar. Its provenance is debated, but itâs generally believed to have originated in the early 20th century with the stateâs 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 lilâ Rhody got its monopoly back a few years later, and today almost all of the stateâs 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 Universityâs dining halls, next to the spouts dispensing one percent and chocolate.
Other dishes considered and rejected: Pizza strips, Delâs lemonade, hot wieners (better known as gaggers and best known as âgaggahsâ), johnnycakes, stuffed quahogs.
Get it from: For $11, you can buy a bottle of Daveâs 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., itâs got the viscosity and color of molasses. Unlike Autocrat, it doesnât list high-fructose corn syrup as its first ingredient: This oneâs just cane sugar and coffee made from specially roasted Brazilian beans. The resulting beverageâstir about three tablespoons into a glass of very cold milkâis 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: âThis tastes like the kind of coffee ordered by people I donât understand.â Another, though, was quick to add: âBut itâs still kinda good.â