Letter from Providence, Rhode Island Letter from Providence, Rhode Island

December 1, 1997

Among the bills before the Rhode Island General Assembly a couple of years ago, one anointed coffee milk the state beverage. Coffee milk -- like chocolate milk but with coffee-flavored syrup -- is a culinary tradition that's hard to find anywhere but Rhode Island and, to many people, is forever linked to a state with few obvious landmarks. People who grow up here find themselves craving the stuff if they move away.

Now, few Rhode Islanders had ever heard of such a thing as a state beverage. But the idea seemed innocuous enough -- a simple legislative nod to the state's manufacturer of coffee syrup. Then someone suggested (what nerve!) that the honor should instead go to Del's frozen lemonade, a sweet-sour, slushy concoction also indigenous to Rhode Island.

Coffee milk won in the end, but the debate was loud and passionate. The Providence Journal-Bulletin had a field day covering the story.

But I didn't get it. I had recently moved to Rhode Island and had never heard of coffee milk or frozen lemonade. And what kind of place was this, I wondered, where the elected officials and newspaper reporters would engage in a battle of beverages?

What I failed to recognize then, but do today, is the rarity of homegrown products competing in such a prominent, albeit silly, contest. National brands, with their massive marketing capabilities, have pushed many of the local labels off the shelves of my local Shaw's market. The Narragansett Brewery folded some years ago, unable to keep pace with the Budweisering of Rhode Island's beer drinkers. And micro-brewed beers from Oregon just don't make the same communal connections.

Many local products, though, do manage to survive and flourish here. Ocean Coffee Roasters' French Roast, Kenyon Mills' corn meal, Tito's salsa, Twin Oaks' pasta sauce, and Wright's Farm salad dressings are some of the things I pluck off the shelves. Providence is large enough to support these local vendors, and lies far enough away from their big-market competitors. Some of these products are very good and could have wider appeal. Newport Creamery ice cream would do well in Dayton or Duluth. Other products, such as coffee milk and frozen lemonade, carry little value outside Rhode Island. Mayor Buddy Cianci's marinara sauce, launched as a public relations amusement a few years back and now peddled in food shops across the state, wouldn't mean much in Vermont.

So the city that travelers often consider a pit stop on Route 95 is a throwback to an urban economy prior to the fast-food chain -- to a time when you could tell cities apart by what they sold and ate. Lawmakers here make time to debate a couple of homemade libations. This seems a refreshing act of loyalty in the Coke-versus-Pepsi era.

Jennifer Sutton is an assistant editor at the Brown Alumni Monthly.

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