After 40 years' teaching at a culinary arts and forestry school, you'd think I've become somewhat knowledgeable about those fields. And if you did, you'd be half-right.
I've learned a lot from the foresters, perhaps foremost among them how to be in total comfort during the most brutal Adirondack winter weather. It's an ancient stumpy secret which I'll now reveal it to you: Wool, wool and more wool.
But when it comes to the culinary side of things, I'm an abject failure. I don't know nuttin' about haute cuisine or centre cuisine either, for that matter. To me, the three most vital elements of fine dining are Hain's mayonnaise, Lawry's Seasoned Salt, and Frank's Original Red Hot sauce. To my unschooled ears, tarragon and cilantro sound less like something you put in food than they do a Vaudeville comedy team.
I admit my gustatory ignorance is voluntary. Then again, there's a less pressing need for it - as opposed to staying toasty warm in 20 below. But beyond that, I just don't care. My most exotic food wants can be readily satisfied either locally or at worst regionally. Which is why my favorite eating establishments are diners.
I don't have a favorite diner. Instead, I've got a slew of them, and the only thing I like more than eating in one of them is finding a new favorite, which is happened last week.
I was taking my bestie, Emma Rose, to Burlington to catch a plane. We had the logistics figured out perfectly: Leave early enough to hit up a bookshop, after having had a leisurely lunch in Henry's diner in downtown Burlington. But Mother Nature, fickle lass that she is, refused to cooperate.
When we got to Redford, the skies opened up and we got nailed with a downpour of Old Testament proportions. It was navigable, but only if the car slowed down, the wipers sped up, and I maintained a steady grip on both the steering wheel and my psyche. Luckily, the ice water coursing through my veins allowed me to do both.
"All right," I said to Em, "it's change-of-plans time."
"From what to what?" she said.
"From eating in Burlington to eating somewhere near here. No way I wanna do the breast stroke halfway across Burlington 'cause there's no way we'll find a parking place near Henry's."
"Agreed," she said. "So you know a nearby place to eat?"
"I do sort of."
"How can it be 'sort of'?"
"Well, I know a place but I've never eaten there. So I don't know how it is."
"What's its name?"
"Don't know that either," I said. "I just know where it is."
Emma, being the sport she is, agreed to give it a try. And good thing too because, not having had breakfast, I was about to start noshing my seat belt.
Meeting the requirements
The diner is a little white house on the corner of Tom Miller Road and Military Turnpike, called Ron's. We went in, and luckily there was one booth free. I say "luckily" because I hate sitting on stools without backs. It wasn't an issue in my youth, and I refuse to admit it has anything to do with aging.
After we were sat down, I checked the place out. It was neat, clean and cozy. Beyond that, everyone was friendly, which is no small deal. Some diners are bastions of xenophobia, where the clientele (and too often the staff) regard strangers less as paying customers than as plague vectors.
I looked on the breakfast menu posted on the wall behind the counter. It looked good, except for the note at the end that said, "Until 11:00." I checked my watch - it was 12:20. Here's the thing: Not only is breakfast the most important meal of the day; it's also my favorite. I can (and do) eat a typical breakfast for lunch and dinner. And my measure of a diner is breakfast not only how tasty it is, but how long it's served. Far as I'm concerned, a diner that doesn't serve breakfast all day isn't worthy of the name.
The waitress came over. She was young and friendly, and best of all told me they serve breakfast all day. The prices on the wall, early bird specials, go up after 11:00. A fair deal, and a brilliant marketing ploy, I thought, as I scanned the menu.
A bunch of items jumped out at me: Homemade bread, homemade French fries, even homemade potato chips. This was looking more and more like my kind of place.
"Homemade French fries," I said to Em. "How do ya like that?"
"A lot," she said. "We don't have any back home."
Back home" is Denver. So much for the advantage of big-city living, I thoughtbut wisely kept to myself.
The waitress came back and took our order. When she returned, I'd downed my first cup o' joe and was ready for some serious eating, which I then did.
So how was Ron's?
Well, without boring you with the details, I gave everything and everyone in the joint five stars.
But as good as the food was, it wasn't the highlight of the meal. Nope, the credit for that goes to the waitress.
Mid-meal, I saw on the menu, "Senior Discount 62." The prices were already rock-bottom, but was it possible I'd get an additional break? I asked the waitress.
"Sure, if you're sixty-two," she said. "Are you?"
"No," I said. "But I was four years ago."
"Wow," she said, "you don't look it."
"And that," I said, "is exactly what you're supposed to say."
"No," she said. "I mean it."
'Yeah," I said. "And now lemme tell you something that'll guarantee your place in The Waitress Hall of Fame."
"What's that?" she asked.
"Just this," I said. "That's the same thing you're supposed to say when you DON'T mean it."
A semantic addendum
Strictly speaking, Ron's is not a diner, as its full name is Ron's Corner Restaurant. But being the lex-maniac I am, I checked the dictionary definition of "diner."
It said a diner is "a small, inexpensive restaurant with a long counter and booths."
So how do ya like that? I diner can always be a restaurant, but a restaurant can't always be a diner.