Debate over origin of dynamite heats up

Debate over origin of dynamite heats up

Alexis Furbash, a waitress at the Early Bird Restaurant in Oakland, Maine, serves up a dynamite plate. According to locals, the Maine version of the Woonsocket staple originated in nearby Madison, Maine, and bears many similarities to its Blackstone Valley equivalent, including peppers, onions and a generous helping of hot red pepper.
A Blackstone Valley staple meets its match in Madison, Maine

WOONSOCKET – Move over, Woonsocket. There’s a new contender for inventor of the dynamite sandwich, and it’s a small town in rural Maine.

Madison, Maine, population 4,700, lies an hour-and-a-half south of the Canadian border and 30 minutes from the nearest exit on Route 95. It has a lot in common with Woonsocket – a large river winding through town and a history of mills that came and went – and a few things that are different – one elementary school for all students, and the largest employer is a tomato farm – but there’s one thing the two towns undeniably share:

The dynamite.

The spicy, sloppy, satisfying sandwich has been served up in Madison and the surrounding area for generations, and, just as in Woonsocket, every family thinks their recipe is the way it’s made. Today, Thursday, Aug. 23, home cooks will battle it out at the town’s first-ever dynamite cookoff during the annual Madison-Anson Days.

There are some differences between the Madison and Woonsocket versions of the sandwich, as Steve DeSanctis, a Madison native and one of the contestants entering Thursday’s contest, explained. Instead of ground beef, DeSanctis’s version uses hand-rolled meatballs and marinara sauce combined with vegetables and a generous helping of hot red pepper on a steaming hot dog roll. The vegetables, he said, are cooked separately and include onions, peppers and celery.

“What they call the Holy Trinity – the three vegetables together are in multiple things,” he explained.

Unlike in Woonsocket, where speculation about the origins of the dynamite ranges from a 1920s luncheon to Quebec, residents of Madison have a pretty good idea who served the first dynamite, at least according to DeSanctis. That honor belongs to his grandfather, Carlo, who immigrated from Sicily in the early 1900s and began serving the sandwich out of his dry goods store to workers in the local paper mill.

“He just came up with this sandwich and one day someone said it’s hot as a dynamite because he used to use a lot of hot red pepper,” said DeSanctis.

It’s a story familiar to Town Manager Tim Curtis, a Madison native whose family members all swear by their own dynamite recipes. The home-cooked staple once fed a bustling population of mill workers, a population that’s changed with the closing of the last of the paper mills in 2016. While a few restaurants in the area still serve dynamites, Curtis said its popularity has declined as a new generation grows up unfamiliar with the classic sandwich.

“Folks from my parents’ and grandparents’ generation, they all know what dynamites are, and everybody had a recipe and everyone brought them to family reunions and cookouts at camp,” he recalled.

Still, what’s old can be new again, and dynamites are no exception. With the closing of the mills, the town’s largest employer is now Backyard Farms, a 42-acre tomato producer sponsoring a chili cookoff every year as part of Madison-Anson Days. This year, Curtis suggested they remake the contest into a dynamite cookoff to pay tribute to Madison’s own specialty sandwich.

“We decided this year to change gears from chili to something that was a lot more privy here to Madison, which was the dynamites, and we’re excited about the reaction this has generated from folks as far away as Rhode Island,” he said.

That reaction has been mostly positive, though it’s also spurred some competition from a region that previouisly thought it held the undisputed claim to the dynamite. Robert Billington, president of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, said he was surprised to learn there was a Maine equivalent to the sandwich that’s been a hometown staple for generations of Woonsocket French-Canadians.

“There’s just no way some town in Maine of 4,000 is going to take our reputation, a town of 40,000 people that’s been making dynamites for decades and are a staple of every political event, backyard barbecue and fundraiser,” he told The Breeze.

It’s unclear whether the histories of the two sandwiches ever crossed paths or they’re simply two separate recipes named for their common ingredients, but Billington said he hopes to bring Madison and Woonsocket residents together for a future cookoff to crown the dynamite king. With two towns both steeped in local tradition and proud of the sandwich they call their own, the competition is bound to be interesting.

“I think Woonsocket’s got something to be proud of. If they originated it, then we’ll yield to them, but if we originated it, then they’ll yield to us,” he said.

Despite the hotly contested origins, competition couldn’t be further from the mind of one dynamite cook. Asked if he thinks he’ll win the cookoff in Madison this week, Steve DeSanctis said he’s entering the contest with the team name “La Mia Famiglia,” meaning “My Family,” and that’s the only thing that matters when it comes to his dynamites.

“I’m doing this for my family,” he said. “I could care less about a trophy.”

Trophy or not, the dynamite is already a winner in the hearts of two New England towns hundreds of miles apart, even if, until recently, neither of them realized they weren’t the only one.

Comments

And a dynamite is served on a roll, not tossed on a plate...

Leave it to Maine to serve a wet, loose meat filling sploshed down onto a plate in utter chaos.

I had parents and grandparents from Madison, ME that go back to mid to late 1800’s.
Dynamites were a staple, tasty and home cooked for crowds and families.
Don’t know who was the originator but anyone that cooked took pride and ownership.
DeSanctis has the right recipe and prep, the sauce was not Mariana though, tomato sauce was cooked from scratch, i’ve got a copy of that exact recipe, from my late aunt who was born in Madison.