(Ed.'s Note- Every Monday--and occasionally on Tuesday--Chicago's Jason Hissong writes Windy City Cooking, a column whose title says it all. Enjoy! -Max)
by Jason Hissong
19 January 2010
Edward Hopper's painting Nighthawks is one of my favorite images. Partly because everyone knows it, or some variation thereof. Partly because Hopper's composition of buildings and figures is well composed. Partly because on the surface it looks so pedestrian, so standard. And yet, looking closer, there's so much unknown about the figures in the piece. There's a figure whose face we cannot see. The red-haired woman with the other customer is looking at her had, disinterested in whatever conversation occurs between her, presumed, man and the soda jerk at work. All of the figures are within the walls of the diner. And outside, the streets are empty, lights turned out.
Richard Russo uses a diner as the centerpoint of activity in his small New England town in his novel Empire Falls. It's a good novel and one I'm glad I've read. The characters have interesting arcs, and the diner serves as a sort of central point from which characters enter and leave, their lives swirling around and into and out of the place.
The diner has a place in our culture. There seems to be one in every town. And if not a local one, more than likely family owned, then there's one of those ubiquitous chain diners that are in every town. What is it about the diner? There's a charm to it, I think. A comfort. There's no pretention about what kind of food the diner offers. There's no expectations of haute cuisine. There are no Michelin stars or celebrity chefs. The diner is, perhaps, the epitome of the blue collar restaurant. The inhabitants are regular people, the wait staff and chefs are getting by, best they can.
Diners are on my mind because I ate four of five meals at the same diner in Skokie, Illinois from Friday night to Sunday morning. Friday night I had the ham club, which was okay but I ate way too much. Saturday morning I opted for the French toast. Saturday for lunch I had the chicken quesadilla. Sunday morning I had the Mexican skillet. And those four items exemplify one part of the diner's appeal: there's so much from which to choose.
I had another recent diner experience. There's a great place called the Lincoln Resteraunt right at the intersection of Lincoln, Damen, and Irving Park in Chicago. It's less than a two minute walk from where I live. I went on a Sunday morning with Jason and Elizabeth. Jason bought a newspaper and it was about the time the first football games were starting. So there we are, the three of us, in these booths that have been in place longer than we've been alive, chuckling, once again, at the woman who runs the place and her hair that is literally two feet straight out in every direction. That place was, and is, such a place of comfort. Another part of the diner's appeal: comfort. They are, in my experience, without stuffiness.
In November of 2008 I traveled with my parents from Omaha to Dallas for a family Thanksgiving. We stopped in Salina, Kansas to eat breakfast on our way down at a family diner whose name escapes me. Whenever I'm in Kansas I always think of Truman Capote's opening to In Cold Blood, "Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call 'out there.' " I thought of that sentence as we exited the car in the early morning hours that Saturday, with the cold wind blowing across miles and miles and miles of empty fields. And the three of us walked into this diner and there were families, huge families, in almost every seat. And the waitresses knew them by name, and asked us ours and I knew that had I been a resident of Salina, I would eat many meals in this place. The food was cheap, and good, and at the end of the day there's not much more one can ask for.
What I Cooked, What Others Cooked for Me, Where I Ate
Thursday I cooked a new soup- wild mushroom with artichoke hearts. While I blended the mushrooms I added the artichokes at the end, and should have blended those as well. But that's part of what I love about cooking- trial and error. There is always a chance to do it better the next time.
I also have some leftover beef stew that I ate on Monday, and on Wednesday I didn't eat dinner.
On Tuesday my friend Emilie had me over for dinner. She fed me pâté on pita bread, and then gnocchi with vegetables and cheese. It was very good and very filling. I thank her for her generosity.
I ate out a lot this weekend, at the same place over and over again. No question that the two breakfast meals were the standouts. On Saturday I had the French toast. It was good, not great, but much better than the ham club sandwich I had the night before. Sunday I had the Mexican skillet, which featured chorizo and jalapenos and a pepper jack cheese.