Wednesday, January 3, 2007

The Evolution of the Diner and Truck Stop in America

During the great Depression of 1929, many railway dining cars were converted to mobile restaurants or 'diners'. Originally catering to blue-collar workers at factory sites, the Diner soon evolved to become a quintessentially American institution evoking images of a home town/ small town meeting/eating place serving typical American fare at a fair price. This is where you brought your girlfriend for a steak and a milk shake and to listen to the juke box, and this is where you met your friends for a chat after work. Or this is where the small-town police officer goes for a quick bite. You can sit at the counter, order your breakfast of two eggs sunny-side up with corned beef hash and coffee, read your newspapers and chat with the cook frying up your meal three feet away. This is also where the single-mother waitress with the stringy blonde hair who is on a first-name basis with every customer confides in you about her latest beau and you left her a big tip as consolation. Diners were 24-hour joints and served breakfast all the 24-hours. So you could have your eggs, sausages and ham anytime. But they also served sandwiches, steaks, soups and salads.
Over the years, [as is typical of Americans to spoil things by jazzing them up] , Diners have evolved into garish monstrosities, lighted up like Las Vegas Casinos, with a Menu that runs into dozens of dishes from Spaghetti and Meatballs to an imitation of the French Duck a'la Orange dish. Usually sited on major highways, [not the Interstates, but the old trunk roads like U.S. 1, U.S.206 in NJ, U.S192 in Fl] they all look the same in some ways. In each, you will still see what's left of the old counter and bar stool concept. And in each is the inevitable counter filled with cheese cakes, muffins, pies etc. They all expect you to wait to be seated by someone-no matter if the Diner is some sleazy-looking joint with only two customers inside, and the waiter is also the owner.
For want of a better word, Diner food is 'comfort food'. That is, if you were an American, you would miss Diner type of food, like you would miss your Mum's apple pie. The portions are huge, and the prices very reasonable. The cooking is in fact better than what you would find in some of those fancy franchised wannabe restaurants like Applebee, Bob Evans, or Boston Market. Denny's is a franchise based on the Diner concept, but it's food falls far short of the quality in most Diners.
The Truck stop is a sub-species of Diner, catering to hungry truckers. But like the Diner, it has also changed beyond recognition. In the old days, truck stops were places where huge men ate their greasy eggs, bacon and fries washed down with coffee before embarking on the next leg of their trip. But truck stops are now called Travel Plazas and are more like shopping complexes-cum-hotels with facilities for truckers to stay overnight, have a shower or browse the latest copy of Trucker magazine. Some travel plazas even have a church within the compound for the truckers to pray. And truckers are no more the strong looking, rough men of old. With the advent of automatic transmission, and airconditioning, power- steering and power-everything for doing every truck task, even women can be truckers, and many in fact do become truckers. Then, there is the romance associated with driving a truck cross-country-this has led many young urban professional couples to quit their city jobs and drive a truck as husband and wife team. So at truck stops [oops! sorry, 'travel plazas'] you can find truckers who look like Wall Street investment bankers, complete with gold-rimmed spectacles, lap top and waist-coat.
Pictures: from top clockwise:
1. Typical Diner fare: ham, eggs, potatoes, soup and coffee. Summit Diner, Summit, NJ
2. Shorty's Diner, Watertown, NY [30 miles from Canadian border]. 1950's themed diner with 50's music and pictures of Elvis Presley.
3. Summit Diner, Summit, NJ converted from a rail coach. Very good food, though unappetizingly presented.
4. Clairmont Diner, East Windsor, NJ: Garish new breed of Diner with cocktail lounge, salad bar and 10 types of Capuccino.

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