Why we love diners
A lesson with America's diner historian.
Richard Gutman is the curator of a permanent diner exhibit at the Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. He's visited more than 500 diners and published four books on diner history and architecture.
The first diner was a stationary wagon in Providence that sold sandwiches. Companies like Mountain View made kits that looked like train cars and shipped them around the country as prefabricated diner buildings. Indiana was one of the farthest west strongholds where these companies sent out diners that were made on the East Coast, Gutman said.
Along with the train cars, the term "diner" drifted in meaning as it reached the Midwest. "Diner" can now just mean a neighborhood gathering place with home-cooked food.
Gutman commented on three aspects that are true of most diners he visits, no matter the location:
Bottomless cups of coffee
When you order coffee, you order a commitment. Each refilled cup is a promise of more talk and more stories shared. "It's a way a diner says, 'We welcome you here and you can stay as long as you like,'" Gutman said. "'We're not going to kick you out, even though there's someone else hovering over your stool. Be comfortable.'"
The beginning of each cup is the beginning of something more.
Seasoned to your taste
"Whether it's ketchup, hot peppers, or hot sauce, a lot of people feel they want to doctor their food in their own special way," Gutman said. Customers ask for Cholula, Tabasco or Frank's hot sauce, but many diners serve a house blend. Gutman said he has one friend who sprinkles hot pepper flakes and Parmesan cheese on every few bites of his food.
Eggs the way you like them
Gutman always orders poached eggs because it's one of the hardest yolks to get right. It tests a diner cook's precision. The yolk should be runny but the white cooked through. Gutman loves to soak up the yellow with his toast, but he doesn't like any signs of water (from poaching the egg) on the bread. He said he thinks fried eggs are the most frequently requested cooking method, but you can have yours scrambled, well-done, sunny-side-up, over-easy, or however else you'd like.
The Indiana expert
Wendell Trogdon heard people say that good homemade food and bottomless-cup conversations were a thing of Indiana's past, so he set out to find more than 125 reasons that was a lie. Trogdon authored the book, "Main Street Diners: Where Hoosiers Begin the Day," as part of his huge list of Indiana-themed historical and service books.
Trogdon grew up in a little town called Heltonville 15 miles south of Bloomington. As a boy, he loved to visit the small town restaurant and order a hamburger before a high school basketball game. During those meals, he saw the whole town gathered together. He still remembers those conversations and the sense of community he felt.
The book is meant to bring back the idea that small towns share a sense of purpose and community. Both a guide and a historical book, it explains how wealth and position are cast aside in favor of a serve-everyone mentality that comes along with home-cooked food. It's about what's shared around the table rather than on it, he said. "A lot of it is about the conversation," he said. "It's an opportunity for these people in a small town to get together and see each other every day."
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