Sunday, January 14, 2007

Eating. down at the diner.

In college there was an all-night diner a short drive away (in Rochester, NY, everything was a short drive away, even the airport, a bare seven minutes - depending on how fast you drive - from campus). Sometimes we would go there in the middle of the night for hot chocolate and coffee and milkshakes and french toast or waffles or burgers and fries. Near the door there was a revolving glass case of pies and cakes; at one side glass doors seperated the main diner from the smoking section. We would sit under the fluorescent glare of the lights and talk about anything and everything. The neon signs in the window cast a strange glow inside the diner, but it was good to be with friends and know that at any hour there was someplace to go for hot food and conversation. It wasn't about the food - which was mediocre - but about companionship, the fulfilling of a hunger that was about more than food.

The diner seems quintessentially American, like baseball and apple pie. I am not sure what gave me this impression, probably Hollywood movies about teenagers on dates. The soda counter of the last century is gone, but the diner still remains. I know diner food was something outside of my everyday life, milkshakes and plates of meatloaf and mashed potatoes and gravy and bowls of chicken noodle soup or Reuben sandwiches on rye. Some time in the not-too-distant past everything old became new again, and the diner and diner food was reinvented. I think we were all looking for comfort, and turned to comforting foods served in new ways.

It was with considerable interest that I noted the opening of Geraldine's Counter in my old neighborhood. It is not the diner of my college days or those seen on road trips or in movies, cracked vinyl booths and formica-topped tables patterned in colored loops like rubber bands, lit by the glare of fluorescent bulbs and neon signs. Instead it has walls of pale lime and orange and raw brick, clean-lined booths made from sheets of plywood, and spare, wire-legged chairs that float like butterflies over the floor. The male waitstaff wear navy-blue t-shirts emblazoned with the diner's name; the female staff wear black tops and aprons. The bright mugs, each a different color, are different from the usual thick white porcelain. This being a neighborhood kind of place, the seats are filled with families and young children who run around screaming. I haven't heard this much noise since I was at a rock concert held in a smoky dark club over a year ago.

I can't remember when I first discovered biscuits with gravy, but I know it was later than I would have wanted - my early twenties, I think - and so to make up for this late discovery, I order biscuits with gravy nearly every time I see them on the menu. (I have made them at home, too, but it is messy and time consuming). The biscuits here are fluffy inside and crisp outside, the gravy smooth and peppered with bits of sausage. There are hashbrowns (my favorite food) and scrambled eggs, and there is strong coffee, and somebody has carelessly left the Sunday paper on the counter. Many customers are clearly frequent visitors as the waitstaff and proprieter linger to chat, and the din of small children is incredible. As is the food.

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