What Makes Rhode Island's Coffee Cabinet Drink Unique
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What Makes Rhode Island's Coffee Cabinet Drink Unique

Nov 18, 2023

Like all of New England, the tiny but mighty state of Rhode Island has a parlance all its own. While slang like "wicked" (for awesome) or "bubblah" (for water fountain) are common throughout the region, Rhode Island has some very specific and mostly food-centered slang that you won't find anywhere else in the country. A coffee cabinet is one such example.

Cabinet is Rhode Island slang for milkshake, which, some argue, is just a version of the word "carbonated" or, more accurately, "carbonate" with the classic New England removal of the hard "r." But regardless of what it's called, a coffee cabinet is simply the "biggest little state in the Union's" version of a coffee milkshake, which includes coffee syrup and milk, for a wonderfully rich and creamy concoction. Thanks to Rhode Island's long history of dairy production, and the influx of Italian immigrants bringing their love of coffee, the coffee cabinet became a unique Ocean State staple that can either be made at home or enjoyed at one of the remaining soda fountains in the area.

Long before coffee syrup and Italian immigrants came to Rhode Island, religious exiles from the Massachusetts Bay Colony chartered the area as a more religiously tolerant settlement. The state flourished, becoming one of colonial America's most prolific dairy producers, and would continue to produce great quantities of milk, cheese, and ice cream well into the 20th century. During that pivotal century, Italian immigrants became the largest immigrant population in the state. They brought their culinary traditions with them, particularly their love of coffee. This love of a strong brew, combined with a desire to embrace the Yankee traditions of their new home, brought about the creation of coffee syrup, a vital ingredient in a coffee cabinet. With a thick concentration of leftover coffee and sugar, coffee syrup became big business for Rhode Island, with Autocrat Coffee Syrup dominating the local industry since the 1940s.

It is around this time that the coffee cabinet is believed to have originated. Thanks to the advancing development of refrigeration and freezer technologies and industrially produced coffee syrup, people and stores were able to keep milk, ice cream, and syrup on hand. It stands to reason that, at some point, the coffee syrup-loving Rhode Islanders would find a way to combine all three for a cabinet.

The ingredients and techniques for making a coffee cabinet are very simple. You take coffee syrup, coffee ice cream, and milk and blend them together until smooth and frothy. Now, unless you live in Rhode Island or its neighboring New England states, it can be very difficult to find coffee syrup in stores. Fortunately, you can very easily make your own by reducing a cup of coffee with an equal part of sugar and a little vanilla extract.

However, if you want a proper Rhode Island coffee cabinet experience, you have to check out one of the state's few remaining old-school soda fountains. The most famous is Delekta's Pharmacy in the coastal town of Warren, where they've been serving up coffee cabinets for three generations. They use the same combination of coffee syrup, ice cream, and milk, though Delekta's has the added theatrics of a vintage soda fountain mixer and vintage glassware. Though primarily a soda fountain these days, you can still get your prescription filled at the counter and enjoy the drink while you wait.

So, whether you're a fan of sweet coffee drinks or looking to visit Rhode Island and eat and drink as the locals do, a coffee cabinet needs to be on your list of New England foods to try. They offer plenty of sweet, creamy coffee flavor, with the added bonus that you'll be able to confuse all your friends back home with some regional Rhode Island slang.