Memories of a coffee cabinetSunday is National Coffee Day
Back in the 1960s, there was a fast food restaurant on Newport Avenue in East Providence called Burger Chef. It was all sharp angles and glass — a sleek architectural roadside design just as you’d expect from that time period. No more cheap and dingy diners for the traveling American middle class. We lived close enough to Burger Chef that we could ride our bikes there, but we never went for the hamburgers. It was there you could get a coffee cabinet. For the uninitiated, that’s a coffee milkshake.
I was reminded of this because Sunday, Sept. 29, is National Coffee Day. As you may know, our official State Drink is coffee milk. (Having beat out Del’s Lemonade in a heated debate back in 1993.) So these memories came floating back.
Every kid I knew had a bottle of Autocrat or Eclipse coffee syrup in the fridge. If you were over a friend’s house and you were asked what you wanted to drink, you could say, “Coffee milk, please” and out would come the syrup and the bottle from Monroe Dairy. It was almost too good, this drink, because a glass didn’t last more than a few seconds after it was poured. It was like Christmas; you blink your eyes and it’s all done for the foreseeable future.
We weren’t allowed to drink coffee when we were kids, but we could apparently amp up on a few tablespoons of pure caffeine. Go figure.
When my family went on vacation out of state, and stopped off at a McDonald’s or some other national fast food chain — or any restaurant for that matter — my brothers and I were always disappointed that coffee milk wasn’t on the menu. “A what, dear?” was the response from a kindly waitress when we asked for that unique refreshment. “A what?”
“Cawfee cabinet,” we’d clarify.
“They’ll have a Coke,” my father would helpfully interject.
When we were teenagers, we used to call coffee milk an “Arizona.” I have no idea why. This could be a micro-regional name used only among me and my friends. But we also called hot wieners “gaggers.” I have no idea where that came from, either, other than the obvious. So when we headed to the Coney Island wiener joint on Warren Avenue over in East Providence, or the one in Olneyville, late at night, it was always “gaggers all the way and an Arizona.” That was generally the meal after the clock had struck midnight.
I guess they still make coffee syrup for the public, but I don’t even drink coffee — or any coffee-related drinks any more — so I won’t enjoy the drink on Sunday. But having coffee recognized with a national day is as good an opportunity as any to remember some of these moments from our Rhode Island past.