In the annals of Rhode Island food traditions, the New York System wiener is probably the most misleading.
New Yorkers know nothing about it.
It’s a 4-inch pork, beef and veal wiener (never hot dog) in a steamed bun with yellow mustard, onions, celery salt and a ground beef sauce (never ketchup). It is usually ordered in multiples and washed down with another Rhode Island food tradition -- a tall glass of coffee milk.
The name New York System emerged in the 1900s when hot dogs, er wieners, were still new. They were associated with Coney Island in New York City, and ‘New York System’ was used as a marketing term to denote authenticity. They're also known as hot wieners, weenies, gaggers and belly busters.
By 1940, ‘New York System’ described a distinct style of preparation that evolved in Providence’s Greek community.
A distinct method of preparation also evolved – ‘on the arm.’ Short-order cooks would line an outstretched arm with buns, then with their free hand add the wieners, mustard, meat sauce, onions, salt in rapid succession.
One of the quintessential New York System wiener shops is in the Olneyville neighborhood of Providence. In 2014, the James Beard Foundation awarded the Olneyville New York System its American Classics medal.
It was opened in 1946 by Nick Stavrianakos and his son Anthony. They came from Brooklyn, N.Y., where they ran a small candy store. They originally immigrated from Greece in the 1920s. According to the Beard Foundation,
Olneyville was once the favored lunch spot of workers employed by local jewelry manufacturers. Now, nearly 70 years later, “the System” has become a multigenerational family spot, the late night haunt of college students, and the first stop from the airport for returning natives.
Olneyville wasn’t the first. A New York System shop in the Smith Hill neighborhood dates to 1927, and Sparky’s Coney Island System of East Providence claims to have been founded in 1915.
As for the coffee milk, food historians say it’s the product of thrifty diner owners. During the Great Depression, they strained water and sugar through used coffee grounds and mixed it with milk. It is now the official state beverage of Rhode Island.
This story was updated from the 2014 version. Photo from Wikipedia by user image415.