On a recent visit to Cleveland, I found myself at Ruthie & Moe's, a diner out at 40th and Prospect. In fact, it was two diners: one a Mahoney '38, built in 1939 by the Jerry O. Mahoney Company, and the other a '56 Kuhlman that the owners found in West Chester, Pennsylvania. The Mahoney was out front, a shiny aluminum railway car with black Formica tabletops and black vinyl seating. The Kuhlman, stuck on the back, was a temple of green plastic, the roadhouse equivalent of an indoor patio at a fancy Manhattan restaurant.
I sat at the counter, spread out the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and ordered up the special: meat loaf with mashed potatoes, gravy, and a side of applesauce. While I was waiting, I noticed a few eccentric touches: an Atomic Cafe postcard, a sign that read "Try Our FABULOUS Shakes," and a '50s-style illustration of a cheese sandwich, a chocolate milk shake, and a pickle. But any concerns that this was merely an exercise in soulless nostalgia quickly faded when I tucked into the two thick slices of perfectly cooked, bacon-wrapped meat loaf. This was followed by a homemade dish of peach-apple cobbler topped with pie crust, a rich, juicy plate of intense fruit and flavor. I then struck up a conversation with a middle-aged, ponytailed waiter who soon revealed that he was indeed Moe and that his wife Ruthie did the cooking. We were soon off on a personal guided tour of his city, windows rolled down on his old pickup, Moe the quintessential tour leader, enthusiastic and knowledgeable.
Soon after my visit to Cleveland, I found myself in Kansas City, at Gates' Barbecue. When I walked in, the girl behind the cash register shouted out enthusiastically like a drill sergeant, "May I help you, sir?"-- a startling wake-up call that this wasn't any old fast-food joint. I ordered the combo platter, a Fred Flintstone plate of ham, brisket, and short ribs served with a stack of white bread and plenty of homemade fries, plus a tall glass of strawberry soda, a shocking cooler of tangerine-colored high-test. The brisket was moist and tender, even better than Texas chopped brisket, and the sauce was perfect: not too sweet with a hint of spice. But the clincher was the full-length wall mural in the dining room, a despondent cow and pig looking mournfully out at the diners, a primitive Thomas Hart Benton gone astray.
Back at home in Vermont, I stopped by the State Line Diner for Sunday lunch with my oldest daughter Whitney. It's not much of an establishment, just a double-wide set near the state line with a large Pepsi sign out front and old-fashioned sleigh bells on the front door. The plastic-sheathed menu was peppered with small ads for Day's Small Engine Repair, Downey's Rubbish Removal, Ushak's Supermarket, and Peabody & Bates, Inc., the last offering screened and bankrun gravel. The waitress, in her best Vermont deadpan, gave us "two minutes to decide what to order and one minute to eat it." It was a gray November day and the food no more than one might expect, but the company was good, from the farmers at the lunch counter to the teenagers ordering up a mess of breakfast past noon.
My daughter and I hopped in the old orange Ford pickup and drove home by the back road. As we climbed slowly through the small mountain valley, I realized that it was no coincidence that the American diner is built like a railway car. It is filled with transients, people on the move to somewhere else, yet it also embodies the essence of American road food: a streamlined, mass market version of mom's suppers, potluck dinners, and church socials. It's home for anyone who walks in the door that day-- a surprisingly intimate gathering of neighbors and perfect strangers.
As we turned into our driveway, I had a vision of Whitney in the booth a few minutes before: quiet, beautiful, eyes wide open, and self-assured. Little kids live in the moment, but as they mature, they start living in the future, no longer content to sit at a Formica tabletop, engrossed by the food and the attention of a parent. They look through you, toward what they might become, planning a path of their own choosing. That day, my daughter was watching the great flow of people, aware of the possibilities and becoming eager to grab hold of the train of humanity as it passed by. And when the day comes that she finally buys a ticket and hops aboard, I will give Moe a call and ask him to watch over her and reserve the best seat at the counter. I know that she will be in good hands.