prepared for the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council on the origin of the
The origin of the dynamite sandwich
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
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.
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
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
“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
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 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
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
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
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.”
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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