Economist Tyler Cowen has been getting a lot of flak for his latest book, An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies, and while I’ll reserve judgment until I read it cover to cover, one of his six rules for dining out—order what sounds least appetizing—has stuck with me. I’ve been following a less-restrictive tenet for years, as a matter of fact. My rule? If you see something weird on a menu, you gotta at least ask what it is.
Such was the case when Dan and I stopped at the Seaplane Diner in Providence, Rhode Island, on our way back from our annual New Year’s festivities this January (one stop of many in a lifelong quest to avoid the Friendly’s and Mickey D’s that overrun I-95 and 84 between Boston and New Jersey). Amid the usual patty melts and soups of the day, a one-word daily special on the handwritten, photocopied list caught my eye at the last minute: Saugys.
Saugys, as it turns out, are hot dogs and yet not just hot dogs. Made in Rhode Island since 1869, first in a home kitchen, then in a building on Providence’s Canal Street just a few blocks north of the Seaplane Diner, Saugy Provisions and their franks are a longstanding specialty the Ocean State.
Edible Rhody has the full history, which includes an illustrious description of Augustus Saugy, son of sausage makers Peter and Lena Saugy as a “Manufacturer of, and Wholesale Dealer in all kinds of Bologna and Sausage; HAM BOLOGNA & PRESSED HAM A SPECIALTY; Special attention given to Cutting Meat and Making Sausage in English Sheep Casings.” Those sheep casings still house the ground beef and pork inside a Saugy dog, giving it the characteristic “snap” that defines the frank.
New Englanders wax poetic over the taste and texture, but the dogs are curiously virtually unknown even to food fanatics beyond the 1033 square miles of the state. (That’s smaller than the Pittsburgh metropolitan area! That’s like keeping the genius of Isaly’s chipped chopped ham to ourselves!) The Saugy company itself calls the hot dogs “a Rhode Island contained phenomenon” and until production moved from Providence to Lynn, Massachusetts in 2002, all operations took place within the state.
With so much history behind them, how could I pass up a chance to eat a Saugy dog? For my virgin outing, I opted for mine plain with spicy mustard and relish on the side. Griddled and served in buttered and toasted New England-style split-top buns, the franks were mellow and unaggressive, not overly garlicky or strongly smoked. Would I have known, I’d have given the dogs a healthy shake of celery salt, another only-in-Rhode-Island habit. Though they’re no longer hand-linked, mine came tied like little balloons at one end, a nice touch for a mechanized method. Good dogs.
In another curious twist of Rhode Island hot dogs, one way you’ll never see a Saugy served, except by a home cook, is the New York System way. Though these hot wiener stands and carts still proliferate throughout the state, they mostly serve Little Rhody brand frankfurters, narrower than a typical hot dog, made skinless, and traditionally cut to size off a long, unlinked rope of meat. Servers at the counter line ’em up on buns along their arms before dousing the dogs with spicy meat sauce, mustard, onions, and celery salt—going “all the way” with toppings.
It’s almost unbelievable that a small state should have such diverse hot dog history, and even crazier that I never would have known about it had we not stopped at the Seaplane that afternoon. If you were to see a Saugy on a menu without description, written plainly without a word of its lore, you might pass it by. But now you know.