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 four-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). People usually order them in multiples and wash them down with another Rhode Island food tradition — a tall glass of coffee milk.
New York System
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 presentation 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. The Beard Foundation explained the medal goes to regional establishments, often family-owned, “treasured for their quality food, local character, and lasting appeal.”
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. A fourth generation now runs it and a sister restaurant in Cranston. 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.
A Century of Gaggers
Olneyville wasn’t the first. The Original New York System shop in the Smith Hill neighborhood dates to 1927, and many believe it served the first hot wiener in Providence. Sparky’s Coney Island System of East Providence claims to have been founded in 1915. Sparky’s, though, has closed.
Other vendors include Baba’s in Providence, E.P. Wiener in East Providence and Wien-O-Rama in Cranston.
Purists prefer New York System wieners with natural casings that link them together in a rope. Cooks have to cut them apart before serving them. Another variety of the hot wiener — the skinless — has no casing at all
Casing or no casing, the New York System wiener always comes in a steamed bun made by the Homestead Baking Co. in East Providence. They have a slightly sweeter flavor than most hot dog buns. They also have only four ingredients: sugar, yeast, water and flour strong enough to withstand heavy steaming.
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 then mixed it with milk. Rhode Island made it the official state beverage.
Images: Wiener by Diannotti – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60236459. Baba’s Original New York System Restaurant by Kenneth C. Zirkel – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=92319917. This story was updated in 2021.