I really like Rhode Island. Have I ever mentioned that?
It’s this tiny little state that one passes through on the way to Massachusetts, and most people don’t give it a second thought, but it’s great. The people are totally different culturally from their neighbors in Connecticut and Massachusetts (although the cultural divide isn’t demarcated by state borders; I’ve heard the Rhode Island term “quahog,” for a type of large clam, used as far north as Falmouth, Mass. [Since writing this, I have been informed that the term “quahog” is widespread throughout eastern and central Massachusetts; I don't know about western Mass., so I’d be delighted to hear from someone from Stockbridge or Pittsfield or Lenox or Great Barrington]).
And the accents! Oh I wish I could do their accents. They sound like they’re making fun of Bostonians.
The capital, Providence, is a multicultural hodgepodge, but for the past few days I have been in Newport, which contrary to its name is one of the oldest settlements in the Northeast, and has a lot of Old Money to go with that fact.
“Rum and slaves,” Eben Klemm said to me, looking at the mansions for which the town is famous. Eben’s the historically-informed head bartender for BR Guest restaurants in New York.
Okay, actually he’s not, he’s like, senior director of beverages or something, but you get the idea. He was in Newport to talk at the International Corporate Chefs Association’s annual summit.
He was talking about cocktails, which is reasonable enough. I was there ostensibly to talk about New England food trends and to add my august presence to the proceedings, but really I was there to hang out with chain restaurant corporate chefs — fascinating people who do things like develop Buca di Beppo’s meatballs and make new salsas for On the Border.
The corporate chefs at Dunkin’ Brands — which includes Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins — I learned, are working on their own brand of soft-serve. I asked one of them if they could please also have dipped soft serve, with that hard chocolate shell, and he said that was problematic at this time as it’s hard to get it to harden without using trans fats.
Anyway, Old Money — the type that I imagine still distinguishes between different types of northern Europeans and that continues to be mostly Protestant and of Anglo-Saxon stock (and of course white, I mean, come on) — was very much in evidence in Newport.
I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere that seems so dominated by WASPs.
There were so many WASPs that some of them were doing manual labor. The groundskeepers at the International Tennis Hall of Fame (which I didn’t know was in Newport, but wasn’t surprised to find out) were blond-haired white guys.
The bell staff at the Viking Hotel, where the ICCA summit was held, looked like they’d come straight out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog.
Portuguese was about as “ethnic” as it seemed to get.
The summit, as conferences like these tend to be, was mostly a series of panel discussions on different topics, preceded by a keynote address, usually about leadership — given in this case by Dunkin’ Brands chief Jon Luther. But we also got to go out on the water if we wanted to (others visited an organic farm and someplace else I didn’t want to see). Some people went deep-sea fishing, others went out on a lobster boat, I spent half a day with some corporate chefs, some representatives from the meeting’s sponsors, the owner of American Mussel (which to me sounds like a gay porn site but isn’t) and his 19-year-old son Justin, an able deck-hand and nice kid.
American Mussel actually is a mollusk producer and processor. We first visited their oyster farm on the eastern passage of Narragansett Bay, where small oysters are put in crates stringed one on top of the other and hung in mid-stream, where the bulk of the plankton swim by. The oysters eat the plankton and grow, and then American Mussel harvests and sells them. They also process mussels and clams and scallops, but they don’t process them much. They just keep them alive and clean them and ship them out.
We toured the facilities and then ate steamed clams and mussels and raw clams and oysters and, for the first time in my life, a raw scallop.
Dear reader, you might have noticed that I eat pretty much whatever anyone puts in front of me and that I’ve tried many, many things just since I started writing this blog, but I cannot remember a more joyful, ethereal culinary experience than eating a raw scallop.
It was super fresh, mind you — still pulsing as it was being removed from the shell. Simultaneously firm and silky-smooth, sweet and briny, I wanted to curl up on the concrete floor of American Mussel and go to sleep, so at peace was I.
“I didn’t care for it,” said someone from the California Avocado Commission.
Great, I thought, more for me, and I proceeded to get stoned on mollusk protein.