October-ganza Day 17: New England beverages

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October 17, 2015 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)

Things have been dark, of late, here on the blog, and a little snarky (sorry, but reading all those ”ghost’ hunter’ websites made me cross) so I thought for a day we might lighten the mood a little bit and turn our gaze to those foods and beverages that are most distinctive of New England, some of which might be familiar and others that are probably rather unexpected.  My list is not comprehensive and is idiosyncratic based on my own experiences in New England.  Why not grab a glass and enjoy?

New England’s uncommon beverages

Moxie – Beloved of some, vile concoction to others, Moxie is definitely a distinctive product of New England, being invested in Lowell (MA) by Dr. Augustin Thompson.  Moxie is one of the earliest ‘soft-drinks’, beginning life in 1884 (some claim 1876, but the company denies this) as a patent medicine (called Moxie Nerve Food) for use against “paralysis, softening of the brain, nervousness, and insomnia”.  Carbonating the liquid resulted in the bitter sweet beverage we know and… know today.

Moxie’s main flavoring ingredient is gentian root extract, which is distinctively bitter.  Personally I think it tastes a bit like birch beer.  Both start fine but finish rather medicinally, like a mild root beer with a cough syrup chaser.

Moxie’s name was supposed to come from a “Col. Moxie” that Dr. Thompson knew during his service in the Civil War, but in reality it almost certainly comes from the Abenaki word for “dark water”, a place name in uses in certain parts of Maine, including Moxie Falls, which was near where Dr. Thompson was born.  Perhaps unsurprisingly Moxie is the state drink of Maine.

For more information on this beverage, take a  look at their homepage –

Coffee Milk – Developed in the 1930s, coffee milk is milk sweetened with coffee syrup, in a similar manner to chocolate milk.  The practice might have originated at the turn of the 19th century in Providence’s Italian community – Lovecraft himself say that “Italians whispered of unaccustomed stirrings” after all – but the first commercially available brands did not become available until the 1930s.

Today the preeminent brand of coffee syrup is Autocrat (the same company owns its former primary competitor Eclipse).  Coffee syrup can be purchased at most grocery stores in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, though you won’t find it on the menu in many places north of Woonsocket. Coffee milk is the state drink of Rhode Island.

Frappes – In New England what most people call milkshakes are called ‘frappes’ (pronounced ‘frap’, from the French ‘frappé – to beat’).  In Rhode Island, however, they are instead called ‘cabinets’ (possibly a corruption of ‘carbonate’ but the etymology is uncertain), with coffee cabinets (make with ice cream and coffee syrup) being rather popular.

Other drinks – Dunkin’ Donuts are more than just ubiquitous, they are endemic.  Likewise, you are never more than about 1/2 mile (inside 495) from Dunkin’ Donut’s coffee.  It that was any true totem of New England, it would be a white Styrofoam cup emblazoned with the DD logo.  At one place on Route 9 (aka The Boston Post-Road) in Westborough, there was a Dunkin’ Donuts on each side of the divided highway, so that you would not have to leave the road and reverse direction at the nearby intersection should you want coffee and a donut.

In Vermont, so I read, some folks like to drink ‘switchel‘ aka Haymaker’s Punch.  This is a concoction of sweetened ginger-water, mixed with vinegar (and in Vermont also oatmeal and lemon juice), served chilled.  You can buy it bottled!

Nota bene – When you are in a New England grocery store – say Big ‘Y’ or Star Market – keep in mind that when you see a sign for ‘seltzers’, the beverages in question are what most people in the U.S. call soda or pop (or… ugh… coke) and not unsweetened carbonated water.

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