Report prepared for the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council on the origin of the Dynamite sandwich

By Denise Perreault

The origin of the dynamite sandwich remains elusive.

I’ve heard, literally, from dozens of people, most from the Greater Woonsocket area. I’ve researched the information they gave me by phone, e-mail, at the library and The Call morgue. I’ve sent queries about dynamites to culinary and cultural experts in Providence, Maine, New Orleans and Quebec City.

And the earliest I can date the dynamite sandwich is to the 1920s, when RoseAnna (Jodoin) Thibeault ran Hamlet Lunch, a restaurant at Hamlet Crossing in Woonsocket.

RoseAnna would serve the zesty concoction to patrons and mill workers, according to her great-granddaughter, with a recipe that has been handed down through five generations of her family. RoseAnna’s great-great-grandson makes dynamites today, and is signed up to compete in the Great Dynamite Cook Off on Sept. 15.

I could not ascertain if the dynamite is of French, Italian or Portuguese origin. Some evidence and certainly common sense suggest the dynamite was inspired by Italian cooking, but it just may be a plain old American dish. We do not know where RoseAnna obtained her recipe, and I could find no evidence at all of a Portuguese connection.

I received at least four responses from people who explained to me where dynamite (the explosive) came from and even sent me a biography of Alfred Nobel. My apparent interest in dynamite probably puts me on a Homeland Security watch list, so I hope the feds have a sense of humor if they ever come calling.

Many people fondly remembered enjoying 10-cent dynamites years ago at the former Vermette’s Restaurant at Diamond Hill and Mendon roads in Woonsocket, which started serving them around 1938, during the Great Depression. But no, dynamites didn’t start there because they date to a time even further back, to a time in the Roaring 20s when Woonsocket was a thriving mill city and Hamlet Avenue, the bustling hub of it all.

ROSEANNA

It was a time when the railroad ruled, when the horse and buggy were heading for extinction with the rapid rise of the motor car. It was Woonsocket in the mid-1920s, when the Lafayette, French Worsted, Verdun and Bernon mills put hundreds of people to work, coming and going every day, at Hamlet Crossing.

The New Haven Railroad had two sets of tracks at the Crossing back then (the second set was ripped out in the 1950s), and a small train stop allowed passengers to get on and off the train at Hamlet Avenue.

After a long train journey or a hard morning at the mills, hungry folks were drawn to Hamlet Lunch, one of the few eateries you could reach on foot, where RoseAnna (Jodoin) Thibeault worked her magic, serving up among various culinary offerings the concoction we have come to know as “dynamites.”

Born Nov. 16, 1884, in Ballouville, Conn., a cotton mill village near the Rhode Island border, RoseAnna was the daughter of Clement and Hermine Jodoin. Her father was a loom-fixer and weaver, her mother the daughter of a French Canadian father and Native American mother. Her family moved to Woonsocket in 1895 when RoseAnna was 11 years old, settling first on Rathbun and later Bennett Street.

Eventually, RoseAnna would marry Louis J. Thibeault, a prosperous real estate agent with extensive holdings in the Bernon area at least. Family members say their family donated the land where St. Agatha’s Church is located today. City directories of the time show that Thibeault owned property on Reservoir Avenue (where he lived for a time), Joffre Avenue (where he also lived) and, of course, Hamlet Avenue where he owned the building housing his wife’s restaurant, Hamlet Lunch, at 124 Hamlet Ave.

Hamlet Lunch was located on the left side of Hamlet Avenue if you’re heading from Front Street, four doors up from Lafayette Worsted and across the street from what is today Consumer’s gas station. The restaurant no doubt was a family affair because, RoseAnna’s daughter, Beatrice, remembered washing dishes there when she was about 10 years old.

RoseAnna “used to feed a lot of people coming off the train,” relates her great-granddaughter, Margaret McNulty, 44, of Joffre Avenue, Woonsocket. “There used to be a little train stop there, called ‘Hamlet Station,’ that my mother said was torn down, maybe in the 1950s.”

Besides serving dynamites at her restaurant, “RoseAnna used to have picnics every weekend “for whoever wanted to come” in the back woods of the Bernon Mills Village,” Margaret said. “She would cook the dynamite in an old kerosene stove in her basement (on Joffre), which was used as a summer kitchen,” preparing the food a day before the picnic.

“It tasted better if the dynamite sat overnight for the spices to blend with the meat, so the pot of food was kept in an old oak ice-chest type fridge, for which the iceman would deliver blocks of ice” from the old Blackstone Ice House, according to Margaret.

“The peppers, tomatoes and onions were fresh from her garden. On the day of the picnic, the pot of dynamite was reheated over a fireplace. RoseAnna made her own bread/rolls to serve the dynamite on.”

Margaret, unfortunately, does not know where her great-grandmother’s recipe for dynamites came from. “My grandmother always said, ‘Oh, it’s a French dish,’” she said, and RoseAnna never wrote her recipe down, but passed it along through instruction and word of mouth to what is now the fifth generation of her family.

Margaret still uses the very same cast iron pans RoseAnna cooked with, and she says RoseAnna’s family recipe has barely changed over the years. Except, that is, for the recent addition of the hot peppers favored by her 14-year-old son, Daniel, and his friend, Michael Piskunov, 15, who is studying culinary arts at the Woonsocket-based Beacon Charter School. “Dan and Mike like to spend time cooking up new recipes,” Margaret says. “They really enjoy cooking, and Michael intends to pursue it as a career.”

Margaret and the two boys have entered the Great Dynamite Cook Off on Sept 15 as a team and are busily trying out new concoctions to impress the judges with, all of course using RoseAnna’s original recipe as the foundation.

RoseAnna died June 29, 1964, at the age of 80. She passed along her recipe for dynamites to her own daughter, Beatrice Daniels (1909-2007), who passed it to her daughter, Margaret Greenlund of Florida, who passed it on to her daughter, Margaret McNulty of Woonsocket, who passed it on to her son, Daniel.

According to city directories of the time, Hamlet Lunch was in operation at least from 1922 through 1925. In the 1926 directory, 124 Hamlet Ave. was a jeweler’s shop and there is no listing at all for Hamlet Lunch.

THE SEARCH

The woman I spoke to at the Johnson & Wales Culinary Arts Museum in Providence was very helpful, but she had never heard of dynamites.

That’s O.K. because neither did anyone else I contacted, such as: Chef Steve Shipley of Johnson & Wales; Chef Emeril Lagasse’s staff in New Orleans; the Franco-American Heritage Center in Lewiston, Maine, sponsor of the Festival Franco Fun every August; “Gallivanting Gourmet” Greg Duncan of The Log Cabin Chronicles at the Vermont/Quebec border; Chef Frank Terranova of Cooking with Class on WJAR-TV (Channel 10) in Providence; and the Quebec City Tourism Council in Canada.

“Bonjour,” wrote the latter. “In answer to your request mailed to Ministère du Tourisme about ‘Dynamite sandwich,’ we are really sorry to inform you that we do not know about the origin of ‘Dynamite sandwich.’ We asked many of our Culinary Arts teachers in our school and none of them heard about this type of sanwiches (sic) before.

Hoping that you will find more information about the origin of ‘DynamiteSandwich,’ Best regards,” signed Hervé Fortin, who lists his affiliation as “Préposé aux renseignements, Registrariat, Institut de tourisme et d'hôtellerie du Québec.”

Since the culinary and cultural experts I contacted (chosen at random, I grant you) didn’t have the foggiest idea where dynamites came from, I narrowed my search to the Greater Woonsocket area. I was struck by how many local residents connected dynamites to the former Vermette’s Restaurant at Diamond Hill and Mendon roads.

At least a dozen people remembered having dynamites at Vermette’s when they were youngsters, like Yolande Cote of Woonsocket, now in her 80s. “I remember when I was about 15,” she said, “we would go to Vermette’s and they had window service then, we would drive up there and eat the dynamites in the car. They were 10 cents each. Oh, I thought it was really something.”

Another caller reported that her sister-in-law, Lillian, a waitress at Vermette’s, actually created the dynamite. One night when her shift at the restaurant was over, Lillian was hungry, so she went into the kitchen, threw together a lot of leftovers, put it all in a torpedo roll and, voila, there was the dynamite! “That’s what she said, and we always said Lillian started the dynamites,” said the good-natured caller, guesstimating that this bit of family lore took place in the 1940s.
Yet a third caller, with close ties to Vermette’s, told me the restaurant did indeed start the dynamites because they were served there in 1938 when “nobody had ever heard of dynamites before.”

“Aha!” I thought, more than a moment too soon.

A check with Walter Vermette and his sister, Doris Lavallee, whose father Alfred founded Vermette’s, totally debunked the Lillian theory and the idea that dynamites began there.

“To be honest with you, I don’t know if my father was the original maker, I don’t know if that’s true, so many people claim it,” said Walter, now 79 years old and a resident of Mendon Road in Woonsocket.


His father bought the restaurant in 1937, “the year before the big hurricane,” he noted. Walter can still remember when he was 11 years old, going out with his brothers on a side porch “to cut all these peppers” to fill a big kettle for dynamite-making.

“We can’t say if it was my father’s idea or if it came from someone else,” admitted Doris, 86 years old and a North Smithfield resident. “We can’t prove anything, it wouldn’t be right. We would like to.” The waitress Lillian was a bridesmaid at her wedding and Doris is sure Lillian didn’t create dynamites (and there was no window service at Vermette’s, she added.)

The Vermette’s recipe included hamburg, onions, hot red pepper seeds, tomato sauce, canned tomatoes and, Walter added, “my father’s dynamites were mainly green peppers, lots of peppers” from that kettle the brothers filled. Neither he nor Doris is impressed with the version served in eateries today. Walter said he just had one the other day and “dynamites are not as hot as they were in my days.” Doris is more blunt: “What they serve today is mush.”

DYNAMITES TODAY

Mush or not, dynamites are a big seller at The Castle Luncheonette on Social Street in Woonsocket, where owner and operator Diane Frenette says she cooks and serves at least 250 pounds of the zesty concoction every week.

“Sometimes, it doesn’t even last a week,” she says. “It’s crazy, people just like it. It’s a seller.”

It’s a versatile seller, too, because you can put the dynamite sauce on hamburgers, hot dogs or pasta, Frenette said, and she even sells it for take-out by the pint or quart, with dynamite rolls on the side.

She learned the recipe 32 years ago when she first came to work as a teenager at The Castle from the original owner, George Laferte, but she has no idea where his recipe came from. “I just know dynamites were served here many years before I bought the place,” she said. She’s since adjusted Laferte’s recipe to make Castle dynamites relatively mild, figuring patrons can spice them up with red hot pepper if they want.

It’s a recipe that’s been a success because people from all around come to The Castle for the dynamites. Frenette mentions a New Hampshire man who’s there every Thursday for a dynamite and lemonade. On the Friday this writer visited the place, a Providence couple were there, with a relative visiting from Pennsylvania, just for the dynamites. “I really don’t find anyone who doesn’t like it,” Frenette says of the dynamite.

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