Why does Rhode Island call frappes “cabinets”?

The mysteries of life are deep. By global standards, New England is relatively new to the scene, born to Europeans in the 17th century. But for a country where 1950 is “the past,” New England is ancient. Our cultural heritage is filled with witches, periods of peace, periods of conflict, pirates, and, of course, a language all our own.

That language evolved over centuries as a blend of cultural influences, many of which were present during colonial times. Many words we use today have unclear influences. Chowder could be French, or French Canadian, or Portuguese, or Cornish, or even Manx. American Chop Suey has gone on such a journey from its origins – it started as a rice dish with chopped vegetables and ground beef and has become an unabashedly Italian-American meal – that its name now seems kind of ridiculous. Terms like rotary for a traffic circle or blinker for a directional come from a simpler place (they’re pretty self-explanatory).

Rhode Island has a few quirks of her own, too. The hot wiener is probably my favorite; putting veal in a hot dog makes a lot of sense to me, and so does covering it with what I’m told is not chili but, I mean, it sure is chili, Rhode Island. But we’re hear to talk about cabinets.

The etymology of cabinet is straightforward. A cabinet is a frappe (or a milkshake if you aren’t from New England, we’ll get to that in a second). You make it in a machine which you keep in a cabinet.

I’m glad Rhode Island didn’t adopt this naming system for everything. It might get a little confusing.

Frappe comes from the French frapper (frah-pay), which means “to hit” or “to beat”. It’s a pretty straightforward explanation of what’s happening when you make a frappe: you’re beating the ice cream until its sufficiently liquid enough to get through a straw. Early frappes were hand-made, so the action of beating the ice cream was a little more real than it is today with those high-powered frappe machines.

New Englanders were accustomed to milkshakes referring to a beverage made by mixing milk and a flavoring, usually chocolate or coffee. The mix was put into a sealed cup and shaken. Etymology is fun!

Frappes were therefore distinct to milkshakes because each described a specific action. Easy access to refrigeration in New England meant ice cream was more prevalent here year round than it was elsewhere, so by the time electric blenders and freon refrigeration were introduced, New England had two beverages with two names. In the rest of the country, milkshakes with ice cream were an occasional treat but they quickly replaced milkshakes sans ice cream as the default.

In Rhode Island, coffee was the flavor of choice, and the coffee frappe – sorry, coffee cabinet – was a common ice cream beverage treat. A proper coffee cabinet is made with coffee ice cream and Autocrat, a coffee syrup sold outside Rhode Island as Coffee Time (I’m told they taste a little different). Autocrat would go on to help local coffeeshop chain Coffee Connection introduce the frappuccino (frappe+cappuccino) a few years before Starbucks bought the chain and the drink in 1994.

New Englanders love coffee drinks, but the fervor for coffee frappes in Rhode Island might be stronger than anywhere else. It certainly helped preserve the unique “cabinet” name. There’s something pleasant about saying “coffee cabinet.”


Proper Coffee Cabinet Recipe

1/2 c. cold whole milk
1/4 c. Autocrat coffee syrup
4 scoops coffee ice cream

Blend in your finest blender. If you have a frappe machine, that’s even better. I’ve also made this using a cold brew sorbetto and, oh man, that was outstanding.

Fancy Coffee Cabinet Recipe

1 c. cold brewed coffee
1 c. sugar
1/4 t. vanilla extract

1 pint cold brew sorbetto
1/2 c. cold whole milk
1/4 c. cold brew coffee

Dissolve the sugar in your cold brew coffee in a saucepan on medium high. Bring it to just barely a boil, then reduce and simmer for about 15 minutes (you’ll get a pretty obvious syrupy mix). Blend in the vanilla extract. Congratulations, you have a pretty tasty coffee syrup now.

Blend the sorbetto, milk, and coffee together with 2 1/2 tablespoons of your pretty tasty coffee syrup. Drink forever. You don’t need to sleep. You only need coffee cabinets.


The featured image for this article was photographed by Morrow Long and is used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

The frappe image was photographed by Marco Verch and is used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


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