Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Diners I Have Known #1

Nothing like a birthday—even one as non-descript as 52 (yikes!)—to take you back to your roots…

Seems like everyone these days is writing about food, or making a tv show about cooking—hey, I’m not complaining. Having given up the vices of my misguided youth, food is both a comfort & a delight as I amble through middle age toward my golden years. & some of my all-time favorite tv shows are food shows—why isn’t “Iron Chef Japan” out on dvd? & speaking of great shows that are on dvd, how about “Two Fat Ladies” or our favorite secret agent, Julia Child? & some of my favorite writers are food writers. & thanks to my favorite cook, Eberle, I have a pecan pie waiting for me for later today!

But I digress….

Back in my misguided youth, I spent some time as a shipping clerk in a paper mill in Bellows Falls, VT—where I was born (not in a paper mill, but at Rockingham Memorial Hospital). This was sort of inevitable, since both my father & grandfather worked in Bellows Falls’ paper mills. Anyhoo, it was a formative experience, to say the least, & one I fortunately came through intact—which was mostly dumb luck & some sort of providence, since Robertson Paper Company was pre-OSHA in its conditions, & prided itself on being old school in every way possible. A hard-bitten, & frankly boozy establishment….

But one delight was the walk at lunchtime to the Miss Bellows Falls Diner—a railroad car joint that had existed as long as I could remember, & as I’ve found out, still exists though I suspect in a considerably gussied up incarnation based on the Miss Bellows Falls Diner website. What I remember was the gray snow light coming through the windows in winter & the deep green & pale golden light coming through the same windows in spring & summer; the stainless steel reflecting lights, though something about the ambience remains dim & hazy in my memory….

I always sat at the counter—really the only way to eat at a diner when you’re flying solo, which I almost always was during those lunch hours. The buddies of my misguided youth (which at this point I’d only very recently left behind) were drinking lunch at Nick’s Café & Barbieri’s & the Polish-American Club. Meanwhile, I was looking over the hand-drawn pictures hung above the kitchen window—colored with crayons. The one I particularly recall was the illustration for the Miss Bellows Falls Diner’s chicken croquettes; it showed a chicken playing croquet.

Of course the chicken croquettes were delicious, like all food you recall over a gulf of 25 years. The fare at the Miss Bellows Falls essentially came down to protein & carbohydrates, if we can speak in those sort of scientific nutritional terms—meat & potatoes to us regular folks. There were some vegetables with at least some of the specials—I seem to remember overcooked green beans—but what made a fellow come back day-in-&-day-out to the Miss Bellows Falls was the basic stuff: hot turkey sandwich (on white bread, of course), with gravy & fries (also smothered in gravy, not ketchup!) or if you prefer, mashed potatoes, also smothered in gravy; or the chicken croquettes & mashed potatoes, all smothered in gravy; or the meat loaf with mashed potatoes, or the liver & onions. There was always pie & coffee to wash it down…

Later in the 80’s, I became aware that this kind of comfort food had gone trendy—I recall an evening with friends at a restaurant in Manhattan that served the same sort of fare I was used to from the Miss Bellows Falls Diner—I remember I got meatloaf, though I don’t recall the name of the eatery anymore. & before I left Charlottesville there was a joint called the Tennessee Waltz that opened that also specialized in this comfort food.

Hey, comfort food is always ok by me, but there’s something to be said for eating it in a dingy old railroad car.


  1. Sometimes the circumstances make the food, too. There's a pink-neon-lit diner the size and shape of a doublewide in South Bend, where I ate French toast soaked in a plateful of cheap maple syrup at eleven at night. The table was sticky and it was too dark to see into the corners or under the furniture. I couldn't tell you the name of the place but I bet I could drive there easily tonight if it weren't so far.

    That might have been the best French toast ever, even as it was also the worst. I don't think we'd eaten lunch that day.

    My magician friend and his magician then-fiance were up from Texas and we have a habit of scavenging the night for food. (He has a great short story about dying and going to Denny's. The question of the story is of course, if you die and go to Denny's, where are you?)

    But at least this time the girl with us was over 18, there weren't any weapons of dubious legality in the car (um ... that I know of), and the police didn't stop us--not even a sleepy policeman.

    And of course it wasn't midnight yet. But the diner could go all night, let me tell you.

  2. Diners I Have Known is a great title!!!

  3. Hi Jen:

    Glad you liked it. I did a few in this series-- maybe I'll think about bringing it back!


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