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Peanut Butter Sticky Rice

With new friends, I had the opportunity Saturday to visit Central Falls, a small impoverished city in Rhode Island that made national news last year when the school superintendent fired the entire teaching and administrative staff of its abysmal high school.  Last summer, the city, which had been in receivership, filed for bankruptcy. All the way through town, I looked curiously out of the window of P.’s Volvo station-wagon.  I knew vaguely what a failed nation-state could look like; would a failed city look different than its neighbors?  Apparently not.  The empty storefronts, auto-repair shops and businesses catering to low-income immigrant populations looked just like any other New England city whose fortunes had fled with nineteenth-century industries.

The raison d’être of our trip to Central Falls was to take a cruise on the Blackstone River, the lifeblood of the mills that originally built the city.  Although the river is still so polluted that fishing and swimming are prohibited, the sunset cruise, with admirable optimism, advertised the opportunity to view wildlife in a setting of natural beauty.  To be sure, we spotted blue herons, deer, and cormorants,  while studiously averting our eyes from the traffic cones, bumpers, and old tires that occasionally dotted the humble river banks.  (“A native species of tire,” muttered P., “It holds its treads all-year round.”) A few tiny fish broke the surface occasionally, and the cool, damp breeze bore only a scent of water-treatment detergents.  Our cheerful guide, Mrs. Dianne, pressed cider, cookies, and bottles of water upon us, assured us that trees falling into the water was a natural process, and told us stories of the town’s founder and of King Philip’s War.  A wide, man-made pond was inhibited by a pack of vicious swans, with the spires of Holy Trinity Church visible beyond it.  Mrs. Dianne opined that the combination of church and swans looked like Europe.  It looked to me like a larger, post-industrial version of the Missouri creek in which I played as a child, but the Blackstone’s placid water, the quiet barge engine, and the cloudy, fading light made for a strangely tranquilizing experience.

For dinner, we’d planned on using a gift certificate that S. had won at an auction to Taqueria Lupita on Dexter Street, one of the main drags through town.  Although its sign was promisingly lurid, Taqueria Lupita was resolutely, inexplicably closed.  We were momentarily stymied, having no particular desire to drive further south to Providence or back north to Worcester, and even less desire to explore Central Falls by foot.  The sidewalks of Dexter Street at night are poorly lit and inhabited entirely by young men.  The exception was an emaciated, heavily-made up young woman who opened her plywood door, looked down at us, and closed it again.  The other restaurants and bakeries had either tinted black glass or drapes in their windows, concealing their clientele and any food they might have been eating from view.  We retreated to the car, drew no inspiration from Urbanspoon, and drove on another few blocks until we spotted a classic diner chrome sign advertising Stanley’s Famous Hamburgers.

We had stumbled upon a restaurant established in 1932, and whose reputation, apparently, was already known to everyone in Rhode Island.  The establishment was blindingly lit on the darkness of Dexter Street and immaculately white in every sense of the word.  As if to make up for the economic and social uncertainties outside, our delightful waitress, Nancy, was very intent that we have no surprises on our plates.  She informed us that the homemade chili had not only beans but green peppers–“some people don’t like them”–that all hamburgers, unless otherwise specified, had grilled onions and pickles, and that a double burger was not, in fact, two patties cooked separately but rather two patties squished together and then grilled.  While the fries–also available “dirty” (with vaguely Cajun spices), or as Quebecois poutine–were hand-cut on the premises, I should have passed on them and had two burgers instead.  The patties were loosely packed and flavorful, with a tender bun soaking up their juices, and they more than justified all the “Best Of” awards splashed loudly across the walls.  These hamburgers would be worth a detour into far riskier neighborhoods than those offered by Central Falls.

As she cleared our plates, Nancy casually mentioned that they had fresh Grape-Nuts pudding that day.  “Grape-Nuts pudding!” P. exclaimed, “I haven’t had that in years.” As a newcomer to New England, I’d never heard of this lovely dessert, which is something like a rice pudding, heavy on the nutmeg, and served in individual glass sundae dishes with whipped cream.  It, too, was white, and very reassuring.

Stanley’s Famous Hamburgers, 535 Dexter Street, Central Falls, RI (401.724.2200)

Blackstone Valley Explorer Boat Rides, 45 Maedeira Avenue, Central Falls, RI (401.724.2200)

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