Mollusks of unusual size
An urban hike through Rhode Island's weird foods
Here’s something I’ve heard anecdotally for years but finally looked up this past week. When it’s chillier outside and you’re engaged in some form of physical activity out in the cold, your body will burn more calories to heat itself. It’s not a dramatic uptick from the amount of “fuel” the human body uses in more temperate conditions. For most of us, thermogenesis accounts for roughly 5% to 10% of the energy expenditure we go through each day. Working out in near-freezing weather isn’t likely to add more than a few percentage points to that number. But a few percentage points worth of calorie burn is all the license I think one needs to engage in one of late fall’s joys.
The urban eating-and-walking hike.
The thing about urban hiking is that unlike wilderness hikes, where the scenery is exotic and enchanting enough to leave you sated, you have to find something cool within the city landscape to build your hike around—a local curiosity that engages at least one of the senses and becomes the thematic compass of your hiking route. It might be something historic, like statues of disgraced politicians from centuries past. It can be a visual or olfactory delight, such as those community gardens where getting off the membership waiting list requires applicants to fight to the death with trowels.
Or…it could be something as elemental as foods or drinks that a city is renowned for. Usually, we think about feasting as something you do after a hike in the backcountry.
But what if a hike itself could be a feast? A long walk from one course to the next?
To illustrate this indulgent form of urban hiking, I decided to take a pilgrimage across Providence: the successor to Portland as New England’s top food city. Whether you’re seeking Sichuan inspired dan dan noodles with squid and mutton, literal grilled pizza, locally-harvested black bass crudo, or Black Angus steak grilled Peruvian style with anticuchera sauce and a fried egg, the quality of food in Providence of late (and the abundance of new restaurants) has elevated the city to the forefront of New England tourism. But this wasn’t the food that I was going to construct my urban hike around.
You see, Providence is the capital of Rhode Island, and historically, Rhode Island has created some of weirdest heritage food in America. New Englanders might be familiar with coffee milk, a delicious concoction of milk and sweet coffee-flavored syrup that’s endemic to Little Rhody. Lesser known and less widely beloved are the solids—snail salad, hot wieners, Johnnycakes, stuffed quahogs, and “pizza strips” that contain only a thick smear of tomato sauce and nothing else. I learned about these foods last year while researching and writing Moon New England Road Trip (which lands in most book stores very soon, on November 23rd!) None of them made me feel particularly hungry. But they sounded so unlikely and awkward that I wanted to be outed as an insolent shit for doubting Rhode Island’s weird foods. I knew that I had to go clomp around Providence and sample as many of these dishes as I could bear. So that’s what I did.