There is nothing, my friends, nothing like a good diner. And there’s absolutely no reasoning or justification I can give on a general level. There’s something about the soul of a good diner or the basic voice of the food that puts me exactly in the place I want to be in the exact right time; but it wasn’t always that way with me. My education was of the immersion variety.
The first time I went to a diner I was in my twenties. I missed out on the whole high school hanging-out after events because I lived in the sprawling suburbs with my parents and like the good hard-working folks that they were, they regularly went to bed at 9:00. That’s the time events were winding down and people planning to meet up around 10, so I certainly wasn’t going to ask them to take me anywhere and deprive them of their sleep, especially when they’d be the ones behind the wheel. I had my license but we only had one car, so there would be no shenanigans lest something dreadful happened. Anyway, I went to a diner for the first time after a concert with a friend who I had met at work because she needed coffee. Conditioned by years of my parents being deep in their REM cycle by now, I naively asked “Won’t that keep you awake?” Luckily she had the grace to overlook my faux pas. (I love using the phrase “faux pas” because anytime it was used in our house, my dad would say “fox paws” and make little paws out of his hands.)
We were given a booth, which by diner law must be constructed of a Formica counter top with super long vinyl-covered benches that cause you to scoot awkwardly over until you’re somewhere in the middle of the abyss (and which is why you never went to a diner on a first date; awkward scooting faces are awkward), a “juke box” that charged twenty-five cents for three plays, and a scaffold of jellys and syrups. Rounding out the decor was a paper place mat advertising the local businesses and the occasional house of worship (Come sing with our Christian Funk Group on Sunday evenings!), giant salt and pepper shakers, a half-empty container of ketchup, and mismatched utensils. Just like home, eh?
Next came the presentation of the menu, which is roughly the thickness of the tablets Moses carried and by the aforementioned diner law contains thirty-seven pages, all laminated and spiral bound. Me, being new to this subculture of diner visits at midnight, assumed we were here for dessert only and looked at my friend. “Do we need menus?” Honestly, why she didn’t move to another table and disown me from friendship is beyond me, but she was a patient teacher. “Sure, let’s take a look, although I’m pretty sure I know what I want.” That is the mantra of the true diner aficionado, knowing what you’ll end up with but willing to entertain the idea of something new.
Every good diner menu begins with breakfast, usually headlined with “Rise and Shine” and “Served all Day!” although how you rise and shine at two in the morning is something I didn’t want to think about. Isn’t it amazing how many variations of omelets there are, and how they all vary in price by just a few cents? You can get a cheese omelet (your choice of American, Cheddar, Swiss, Mozzarella) for $4.95. You can get a bacon omelet for $5.25. But a bacon and cheese omelet? That’s gonna run you $5.75. However, if you order a bacon omelet and THEN add the cheese? The bottom of the menu says to add $1.25 for cheese, so your bacon omelet with cheese is now $6.50. Are you ordering the #2 special? Your omelet will be made with fewer ounces of bacon BUT you’ll get coffee, tea, toast, and hash browns and a small juice for $6.95. Don’t even try to figure it out.
Even though this was a midnight visit, I was poring over the pictures of the “Deluxe Dinners” featured that day. (And was it still “that day” in diner world? It was after midnight, did the specials change automatically too?) If I were so inclined, I could get a beef stew with fresh garden peas, sweet carrots, and pearl onions in a mouth-watering gravy with homemade mashed potatoes and a fluffy dinner roll and my choice of soup or salad, plus the bonus of jello, pudding, or ice cream for dessert. I wondered whose garden the fresh peas came from and how they were able to find them in January, but the picture certainly showed an impressive meal and who am I to doubt my eyes? They also featured “Chops.” No particular animal named, just “Chops.” Lamb? Pork? Sticks? Oh, wait, I could also get “Fresh-Caught Flounder Filet” with a delicate lemon-butter sauce and tender asparagus. Again, January, and again, who am I to quibble over something I’m not going to order anyway.
Here’s something that Diner Law decrees must be on every menu: The Happy Waitress. ( I once asked a waitress if she was happy was she then obligated to serve that meal, or if someone ordered it was she then obligated to be happy about it. She snapped her gum and asked me what I wanted to order. I guess she was not.in.the.mood.) This is an open-faced grilled plastic cheese sandwich with tomatoes fresh from the gas-filled greenhouse and a heap of fries, plus a pickle and cole slaw. Which brings me to another question. Does anyone ever eat diner cole slaw? I seldom observe anyone eating it, yet every diner I’ve been in on the East Coast of Murica serves it “on the side” which is where it stays. There must be people eating it because they continue to serve it, but it’s one of the many mysterious puzzles of the diner.
My friend ordered a cup of coffee and a grilled blueberry muffin. I was so flustered I ordered an English muffin and a ginger ale, and when she asked me if I wanted it grilled I didn’t know how to answer. Who puts bread on a grill? I’m aware that the foodie trend of the last twenty years or so lets you grill just about anything as long as you have the hardwood chips that have been soaking and the right marinade/rub/secret sauce recipe, but this was not that recent. I said “No?” because I wasn’t sure what I would get. When our orders arrived I received an English muffin with a pat of butter the size of the actual muffin on each half, which was melting and oozing all over the plate, and two containers of jelly to match the tower of jelly already at the table (strawberry and orange marmalade). My friend’s plate was an oval platter, with a loaf-sized blueberry muffin split from top-to-bottom and buttered, then placed on the griddle (not the grill, but apparently when you place something on the griddle you are getting it grilled and no wonder people have a tough time learning to speak American English) so that it was golden and crispy yet still cakey inside. She let me have a bite, and that evening was when I took my blood vow to be forever devoted to the American Diner.
To cap off that rousing history, here’s a gratuitous shot of my preferred evening meal at our local diner:
Now go get yourself one of these bad boys and join us in the Cult. It’s open Twenty Four Hours and All Baking is Done on Premises!