When I learned recently that I’d be moving back to the East Coast for a job after several years out west, my girlfriend asked a question she knew would be on my mind: “How soon will you be able to make it to Providence for New York System?”
Of all the things that Rhode Island, where I grew up, is famous for—endemic corruption, Family Guy, that accent—the state’s signature food is perhaps the most underrated. The New York System wiener is a small, thin frankfurter made of veal and pork, which, when ordered “all the way,” is topped with meat sauce, celery salt and other spices, mustard, and onions. I’ve been known to throw back four at a sitting. There’s an art to its preparation. Like the chef at a blue-collar Benihana, the wiener-master lines a row of buns up one arm, while with his free hand he adds the franks and condiments at lightning speed. This elegant technique is known as “up the arm.”
Oddly enough, New York System is seemingly unheard of in the Empire State. Jack Chiaro, who teaches cooking at Johnson & Wales culinary school in Providence, says the term dates from the early 1900s, when hot dogs from New York started reaching the Rhode Island market. The name was considered a mark of authenticity, though the cooks who originally served them were immigrants from Greece. Adding to the confusion, “wiener” is sometimes spelled “weiner” to this day, and New York System wieners are also known as hot wieners, weenies, gaggers (gaggas in the vernacular), and belly busters.
I think of them primarily as delicious. When I was growing up in Providence, my mother and I had a Saturday ritual of visiting our favorite greasy spoon to split “six all the way,” along with French fries doused in vinegar. Wieners are often washed down with coffee milk—another Rhode Island concoction, consisting of milk and “coffee syrup,” which I admit I’ve never developed a taste for. Despite its -following among people like my schoolteacher mother and me, New York System is a working man’s delicacy. Restaurants that make it their specialty tend to be crowded with police officers and plumbers.
As I’ve learned the hard way, there are pitfalls associated with having a favorite food whose range is so geographically limited. Once, while living in Asia, I took a packet of wiener seasonings across the Pacific with me after a trip home for Christmas—only to discover that the right-sized frankfurters and buns were unavailable in Seoul. During my seven years in Oregon, many a Saturday my mind would drift longingly to New York System. Even growing up in a neighborhood without a go-to gagger spot, I sometimes bicycled three miles along a four-lane highway to satisfy my craving. And I’m not the only member of the Rhode Island diaspora who has pined for New York System from afar. While he was stationed in Iraq in 2006, a serviceman who is native to Rhode Island wrote to a Providence wiener restaurant requesting a shipment of gaggers. The restaurant sent over all the necessary components—save the franks themselves, on account of their decidedly non-Halal nature. (“We didn’t want to start another war,” the restaurateur explained to the Boston Globe.)
Rhode Islanders being an intensely territorial (read: provincial) people, the fights over whose wieners are best are legendary. Some claim that Olneyville New York System, in a gritty neighborhood west of downtown Providence, serves up the state’s finest. Others swear by Wein-O-Rama in Cranston, Ferrucci’s Original New York System in West Warwick, and Sam’s New York System in North Providence. Some years ago, Rhode Island Monthly was forced to suspend its “Best Weiner in Rhode Island” award after the barrage of hate mail became too much to take.
Inherently subjective questions of preference aside, others abound. Why is one of the best iterations of the quintessential Rhode Island food found in a diner in, alas, Massachusetts? (That’s Eats, in Seekonk, just across the border from East Providence.) When the spelling is “weiner,” shouldn’t the word be pronounced more like “whiner”? What exactly is New York System meat sauce made of?
There are other pretenders to the title of Rhode Island’s trademark fare. Stuffies, frozen lemonade, and coffee cabinets all have their partisans. But as for me, come Memorial Day (and Independence Day, and Labor Day, and Veterans Day . . . ), I’ll be heading for Little Rhody, in a New York System state of mind.