Every county, state, and region of the country has its own unique quirks, phrases, vocabulary and recipes, but few offer up as insulated a culture as Rhode Island. If there’s anything Rhode Islanders love, it’s being Rhode Islanders. Studies show that 98% of people born in Rhode Island never leave! (Just kidding, that’s not true.) We decided to take a look at some of the things that people from around here love. No self-respecting Rhode Islander would ever be caught not knowing about these things:
1. Good Eats — We sure do love our local (and localized!) food. All you can eat family-style chicken is a Northern RI staple, and you’d be hard-pressed to find it south of Providence or anywhere else in the known universe. Cheeseless bakery-made pizza strips have a similar story, but are a bit more widespread throughout the state.
In the realm of sweets, fried dough or “doughboys” originated in Canada and migrated to RI with the French Canadians of Woonsocket and North Smithfield. Now? You can find them at just about every festival ever in the history of the state. Johnnycakes, the elegant lovechild of cornbread and pancakes, have a history as nebulous as they are delicious.
What would we be without our seafood? Because we’re so Rhode Island, the red and white forms of clam chowder weren’t enough, so we made our own variant with clear broth. We also have our own calamari (the official app of the state!) served with pepperoncini and marinara. Quahogs are also so Rhode Island that the town in “Family Guy” is named after them, but they are most famously used in a stuffie. And how can we forget the only seafood less healthy and more delicious than fish & chips? Clam cakes!
2. Hot Weiners — Though technically also a food-related experience, there is something that sets apart the late-night buzzed consumption of hot weiners. A lot of people tout NY System as their haven for “gaggahs,” but I prefer Woonsocket’s New York Lunch.
No matter where you prefer to get yours, it has to be the special: a few wieners with a small order of french fries and a coffee milk. The buns come pre-greased and with a touch of arm sweat and the dogs are evenly cooked on those greasy roller contraptions. Top them with minced onions, meat sauce and a few touches of celery salt. I frequently get yelled at for adding mustard and ketchup to mine, but how can you not?
3. Drink, and be Merry — Coffee milk runs in our blood, and a Coffee Awful Awful from Newport Creamery is only for the thick-blooded individuals who want to be overwhelmed by creamy deliciousness. A true Rhode Islander loves Awful Awfuls, even if they don’t always get the coffee-flavored one, but even more importantly, a true Rhode Islander has their favorite place to get coffee milk. They’ve also made their own using Autocrat’s Coffee Syrup numerous times.
And no summer in Rhode Island is complete without slurping down a genuine frozen Del’s Lemonade, the chunky slurpy styled treat with real bits of lemon.
4. 4th of July in Bristol — For most of the country, attempting New Year’s Eve in New York City is something of a rite of passage. The hype, the energy, the congestion and inability to move (especially if you opt for Times Square) is a perfect parallel to the intensity that is 4th of July in Bristol.
Bristol is home to the oldest 4th of July celebration in the country. Rev. Henry Wight conducted the first “Patriotic Exercises” in 1785. That’s not a typo. It was 230 years ago. Wight was a veteran from the Revolutionary War (which explains his enthusiasm). These days, Patriotic Exercises includes nightly concerts in the park for weeks leading up to the day itself, a massive parade that draws up to 200,000 people annually.
5. White Horse Tavern — If you can believe it, there’s something older than Bristol’s 4th of July Celebration! White Horse Tavern in Newport has been around since 1673, before America was even really a thing. Forget RI, this is one of the oldest watering holes on the entire continent. They say it was a “regular haunt for Colonists, British soldiers, Hessian mercenaries, pirates, sailors, founding fathers and all manner of early American folk.”
These days, the Tavern offers great upscale dining that’s accentuated by the quaint history of the place. Located right in the middle of downtown Newport, how can you beat it?
6. Cliff Walk — Buzzfeed published an article last year listing “truly charming places to see before you die.” The list included places like a village on a Grecian isle, a colorful town in Northeastern France, and Newport!
Downtown Newport has a renowned nightlife, dining (including the White Horse Tavern) and shopping, but arguably the best part of Newport is the 11 mansions lining much of its coast. The Cliff Walk is hands-down the best way to experience the wonderful 18th century architecture of the mansions while also trailing along the coastline. This is 4.5 miles that every Rhode Islander must trek at least once.
7. “Sail away on the Block Island Ferry!” — If a Rhode Islander hasn’t made it to Block Island before, then they at the very least can sing the “Sail Away on the Block Island Ferry!” song by heart.
The island offers 17 miles of wonderful beaches (all free), a large number of hiking trails and stunning cliffs. But the town itself offers great culinary options along with various shops. You can rent just about any vehicle, from a bicycle to a moped or even a handy little go-cart of sorts, to tour the island.
8. WaterFire — The only thing about Rhode Island that incites more confusion than the concept of “coffee milk” is WaterFire, an oxymoronic name in its own right. The event itself is pretty hard to describe: Three rivers converge in downtown Providence at Waterplace Park. Scattered on the water in the area are 100 braziers that are lit whenever a WaterFire event happens. Each scheduled “lighting” takes on an urban festival atmosphere, with all sorts of vendors participating in this free public art experience. Some call it a spiritual communal ceremony of sorts.
With civic duty in mind, some lightings promote various causes, and just about every individual lighting is sponsored by one or more local businesses.
9. Catch a movie at the Rustic Drive-In — Drive-in movie theaters aren’t a thing of the past. The Rustic Drive-In on 146 in North Smithfield is going strong after almost 55 years in the business. The drive-in was a thriving species when the Rustic was built in 1951. Today, this poor species has had its population reduced by 90%. There might be four in Massachusetts, but the Rustic is the last remaining one in RI.
Lots of the locals in North Smithfield like to giggle about how the sign looks like a weirdly bubbling phallus, and it’s true that they showed exclusively X-rated adult films for a stretch in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But today, a family of four can pay by the car to see two movies back to back for less than half the cost at a regular movie theater. Even more impressive, the Rustic always runs the new releases!
10. Make the pilgrimage to H. P. Lovecraft’s grave — Whether you’re a fan of horror or not, H. P. Lovecraft is the most influential thing to come out of Rhode Island since Narragansett Beer, which would explain their enthusiasm for making Lovecraft-infused brews. Lovecraft’s lasting impression upon the horror and science fiction genres permeate almost everything you play, watch and read even today. He’s buried at Swan Point Cemetery, in the northeastern corner of Providence right alongside the Seekonk River.
Look for Lot 5, Group 281, but first and foremost, look for Motif’s second August 2015 issue all about Lovecraft and the conference that’s developed around him: NecronomiCon.