The Seagull and The New York System (Part 1)
An excerpt from THE SEAGULL, THE NEW YORK SYSTEM, A WINNEBAGO, AND THE BIG BLUE BUGS
“Did you know that Rhode Island has its own kinds of food?”
The scraggly man didn’t wait to be asked, but lurched over, pulled up a chair, and tapped his empty glass on the table.
Hope’s on Empire Street was the kind of dive bar that doesn’t exist anymore. No television, no jukebox, and a haze of smoke that infected your clothes. It was a place for serious drinking. Rumor had it, Hope’s was owned by a couple of ex Providence Journal reporters who kept it open after hours to give papermen a place to unwind when the day’s news was finally put to bed.
As soon as a full glass was brought from the bar, the scraggly man took a sip and began again.
“We have all kinds of foods they don’t have anywhere else in the world. Or if they do, they started here. Take pepper biscuits and wine biscuits. The peppers are spicy, the wine aren’t that sweet. They’re both hard and crunchy. Get them by the pound at any Italian bakery, but only in Rhode Island.
“Johnnycakes, which are cornmeal mush pancakes, are still on the menu in real diners. Hell, we invented the diner. First mobile food trucks in the world were here. Haven Brothers still parks next to City Hall every night, and serves French fries with vinegar to drunks and late workers.
“We’ve got wandies, which are a thin dessert pastry, cut into rectangles or hand- rolled into a shape like a rose, then deep fried, and doused with powdered sugar. You get these at weddings and christenings. At the carnival, you get the doughboys, which are a thicker fried dough, the size of a dinner plate, and also covered with a deep dusting of powdered sugar.
“There’s coffee milk, which is like chocolate milk except made with coffee syrup. They actually serve this stuff in elementary schools, in little light-brown half-pints, and then wonder why the kids are bouncing off the walls.
“And pizza strips. You get them at the convenience store. Picture a big square pizza with no toppings. No cheese, no mushrooms, sausages, pepperoni, or anything. Just sauce and crust, served at room temperature. Cut it into rectangles and put a piece of wax paper on top of each pizza strip to keep the flies off. They have them just next to the register at Cumby’s. Perfect when you’re coming home late at night.
“Clam cakes are another. Picture deep fried clam donut holes. Mostly batter with a few chewy chunks of clam. You dip them into your chowder. Which is also unique to Rhode Island. The rest of the world only has two kinds of clam chowder. There’s the Manhattan, which is red and has a tomato base, and the New England, which is white with a creamy stock. Here in Rhode Island though, you can still get clear chowder, which is delicious with the clam cakes.
“Clam cakes can be light, but most are heavy. My friend Carol used to call them, ‘True ballast.’ But they’re the perfect meal after a long day at the beach. You get a quart of chowder and a dozen cakes. Don’t save leftovers until tomorrow. Clam cakes aren’t the kind of food that keeps well overnight.
Whatever you don’t eat, you break up into little pieces, and chuck up into the air to feed the seagulls. The gulls will catch them on the wing. They’ll squawk and screech and scream for more, until all you’ve got left is the greasy paper bag. Throw that on the ground and the gulls will fight for the crumbs until feathers fly. A hungry seagull never leaves even a scrap of food, and they›ll always come back for more.
“And of course, the New York System... huh.” His voice faded out. “Almost forgot about the New York System.”
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