AG: “I’m from a little state called Rhode Island and there’s this dish, this cuisine called the Rhode Island Hot Weiner. It is not strictly related to Rhode Island to my knowledge, it’s kind of like an East Coast thing, like, New York, New Jersey as well. But Rhode Island has these very specific ones. There’s a bunch of different kinds you can get, there’s a bunch of different categories. There’s East side and West side wiener. I’m an East side wiener guy. There are some that are just disgusting. They don’t even call them wieners. If you go into Providence to get a hot wiener, they’re called gaggers because of how disgusting they are. I couldn’t even finish it; my dad took me to get gaggers one time and I was like, yeah, I can’t do this.
The East side wieners. Basically, you’ve got a standard hot dog in a bun with celery salt, mustard, onions and meat sauce and it’s delicious. And there’s a very specific way you need to order them. You can’t just order one, you have to order three, and to order three with all the stuff on it, you say ‘let me get three all the way.’ But it doesn’t stop there. You have to also order what’s called a coffee milk, which is also something that’s very, strictly limited to Rhode Island. It’s milk with coffee syrup. I don’t like coffee; I do like coffee milk. So. the classic order, you go into any wiener joint in the state of Rhode Island, you say ‘let me get three all the way and a coffee milk.’ They know exactly what you want. ‘Coming right up,’ and they give it to you.”
The informant is a 20-year-old college student from Barrington, Rhode Island. He described Rhode Island Hot Wieners as a staple of his home state’s food culture, a source of rivalries, familial traditions, and regional pride. AG, his father, and his grandfather have a tradition of going to get hot wieners when he is home from school. AG’s grandfather prefers West side wieners—which are more like sausages in comparison to East side wieners, which are more like classic hot dogs– and frequents an iconic restaurant called Wienerama, famous for the way the server prepares the hot dogs in front of the guests by stacking around ten on his forearm and adding the accoutrements with his other hand. AG prefers East side wieners and favors the hot dogs served at a tiny diner called Rod’s in Warren, Rhode Island. Just as the man who prepares hot dogs at Wienerama has been working at the restaurant and using his same assembly method for decades, the owner of Rod’s has a similarly iconic status among the diner’s regulars. AG describes her as an old lady between the age of 90 and 100 who plays the same role at the restaurant that she did when AG’s grandfather went there in the 1970s. AG describes how the people who have worked there recognize his father and grandfather as patrons who have been going to the restaurant for decades.
AG thinks of this food tradition as communicating state identity. He has a shirt that says, “Three all the way and a coffee milk.” Though non-Rhode Island natives tend to think hot wieners sound gross when he describes it to them, he says that when he’s taken friends to try them, they appreciate the tradition. “You’ve just gotta do it. It’s one of those things you can’t describe, you just have to experience it for yourself,” he said.
I think that the Rhode Island Hot Wiener and the tradition of ordering “three all the way and a coffee milk” is an emblem of state pride. This food tradition provides Rhode Islanders with a common experience to bond over. AG’s story shows how the food builds community—between his family, with other people from the state, and with the people who work at the restaurants where this food is served—and serves as an intimate familial ritual which brings together members of different generations. Moreover, allegiances to one type of hot dog or the other creates subcommunities, creating another social dimension to this tradition.
The fact that people who are not from Rhode Island think that Hot Wieners are gross further strengthens this sense of community, where there are people who understand it and people who don’t, insiders and outsiders. However, the novelty of the food also provides Rhode Island natives with the opportunity to be arbiters of their culture, choosing to introduce people to the tradition, sharing a part of their identity.