Saturday, April 14, 2007

The "New York System", and health.



Providence, Rhode Island, is famous for many things. Paradoxically, one of its most important cultural contributions is called "The New York System". Present-day proponents of the New York System have been able to find no actual historical connection to New York.

One of the most well-known denominations of the New York System is the Olneyville New York System, a two-diner chain. As their website demonstrates, they make the New York System open-source in order to sell its proprietary New York System spicy sauce in their diners and at Shaw's supermarkets around Rhode Island. Their description of how to implement the New York System is detailed and informative. In brief, the New York System involves wieners cut from chains of links (hence they have their ends chopped off and do not look like ballpark franks); put in hot dog buns; and covered in spicy ground beef and onions and mustard. If you order enough at one time, the preparer lines the wieners in buns up his arm and plops the toppings quickly down the arm, hitting each wiener in succession.

(This maneuver is rumored to be the source of Rhode Island School of Design alum and former Original New York System employee David Byrne's mysterious chopping dance for the Talking Heads' song "Once in a Lifetime", seen in this video where he makes chopping motions up his arm at 3:56, and in many other performances of this song, as he shouts "Same as it ever was! Same as it ever was!" Please note that this original post mistakenly said that Mr. Byrne worked at Olneyville New York System. This is incorrect. He worked at the rival Original New York System. Hemodynamics apologizes for the error. Please see this Boston Globe article for a more complete account.)


The Olneyville New York System also offers coffee milk, which is milk with sweet coffee syrup, like chocolate milk, but it's not chocolate. It's coffee. Coffee milk.

Long-time residents of Providence no doubt take these wonders of American regional cuisine for granted, but Ms. Hemodynamics and I did not. ONYS is an old-style diner with a long counter and little waist-high booths throughout. An especially large and friendly man greeted us and took our orders, talked to us about Boston, and made us feel welcome. (Although after I admitted that I had not previously partaken of the New York System, he shouted, "We got virgins! Virgins here!" Olneyville New York System does not shy away from schtick.) We started in on our coffee milk and then soon were digging in to our ONYS wieners.

Here are some of the most important things to know about the Olneyville New York System wieners, from a health perspective.

First, we were pleased to see that no acute coronary syndromes were in progress among the patrons, most of whom were men on the older and larger side, who we guessed might be mostly descendants of people from the northern shores of the Mediterranean (let's say Greece, Italy, and add in Portugal even though it's on the other side of the peninsula), and who appeared to be ONYS veterans. This suggests that the ONYS may have mysterious healing powers that counteract the effects of its ingredients. (See below.) Admittedly, perhaps some other aspect of their diet cancels the ONYS out; but perhaps the ONYS sauce has some kind of anti-oxidant ingredient. Further research will be required.

The second lesson was learned by a black woman who came in with her daughter, and immediately looked worried. (If you looked at the clientele, and you were a black woman, you probably would have been at the very least uncertain, although while we were there no one gave any special cause for worry.) Sensing this, I think, the warm counter man took great pains to make the mom and daughter feel welcome. He described the ONYS wiener to them, with enthusiasm. She said, "It's a chili dog." (She was clearly torn: compelled enough by this strange place to see what it was, yet also not wanting to let anyone get one over on her.)

"No, no, it's not a chili dog," he said, with a small, confident smile. "You'll see." We didn't stick around long enough to see her reaction, but we hope she liked it as much as we did.

Later that day, I talked to my friend R. who had called me about planning a trip. I told him about the wieners.

"It's a chili dog," he said.

"No," I said, "It is not a chili dog."

It is not a chili dog.

It is very very tasty, however. It also contains what may have been 1.5 kg of fat, although it was hard to be sure; and this was our third health lesson.

The ONYS wiener is not a heart-healthy meal. Accompanying your ONYS wieners with coffee milk and a plate of fries, as we did, does not help matters.

Although the cardiac effects of ONYS are probably mostly long-term, the gastrointestinal effects are not. About fifteen minutes after completing my ONYS meal, I felt as if my stomach was squeezing down on a rock. I had some acid reflux. The rock stayed in my stomach for hours thereafter. My esophagus burned for hours.

And yet, I wouldn't have traded it.

We were not two bites into our ONYS wieners when Ms Hemodynamics said, "This was worth the trip right here." (She was referring not only to the wiener but the combination of wiener and ambience.)

There was nothing healthy about the ONYS wiener, from a physical standpoint. But the psychological effects were overwhelmingly positive. Sure, there was the fat-triggered dopamine surge. But we also felt happy and cared-for at Olneyville New York System. And we felt proud: after a confusing drive past iron-barred corner stores and many Guatemalan and Salvadoran restaurants ("Have you ever had pupusas?" I asked Ms Hemodynamics, as we looked for ONYS and I started thinking about back-up plans) finding the ONYS suddenly in front of us felt like a victory in itself.

So although the ONYS wiener had immediate and obvious effects on our physical health, it was our mental state that took priority. The ONYS was definitely bad for my heart and my GI tract. But it was good for my soul.

A last note: the host pointed to a gentleman who looked to be in his 70s, and said, "My uncle. 101 years old. My late mother, his sister, said, God forbid if I should go before him, take care of him. And she didn't mean like a nursing home. She meant, TAKE CARE of him, like with a gun. But I didn't do it. So here he is. My uncle. A hundred and one." (He was not 101 years old.)

"What's the secret?" I asked the uncle, who had clearly heard this schtick before, and was digging into his wiener without comment. "Is it the wieners?"

"Absolutely," he said.

1 comment:

emily wright said...

Two other places on the Olneyville website: Wes' Ribs and the Dirt Palace (this listed as a community organization). The combo merits another trip....