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The Ironic British Take on The Iconic American Diner

November 29, 2011

Fine dining, no. Comfort food, yes.

America is, apparently, unique in our institution of The Diner, aka The Wayside Canteen.

According to the British, the closest they get to the diner experience is at the pub, although the only real similarity I can think of is the quality of the food.

A ‘diner’ is not, however, synonymous with ‘bad food’; it has more to do with enormous quantities of meat and potatoes served quickly, all day long. Haute cuisine it is not, of course, but with the reputation for the ‘bottomless cup of coffee’ and huge American-size portions, I suppose comfort might be implicit.

Since they do not slather everything in gravy, their food is simply not as comforting as American diner food, and I think that’s the attraction for countries outside of the States: we provide comfort, American style, in a manner they have not yet found a way to replicate. One similarity with pub grub is that American diner food is heavy on carbohydrates and salts. One dissimilarity with pub food is that at least America makes a stab at providing a vegetable, albeit not the roasted tomato skirting the edge of the fry-up you come to expect in the greasy English spoon caff (British for ‘café’). For the Brits, their overcooked ‘veg’ is usually off to one sad side of the plate, easy to ignore until it’s too late; you’re full from the bangers and cold, white toast, and never quite get around to the desperately tired-looking fried mushrooms or yellowing tomato slice. Now that I think about it, no wonder the British wax lyrical about American diners, since diner grub isn’t half-bad, actually.

This is not America, no.

The British are as fascinated by our lowly diner as we are with their Queen, it seems, since they have begun a BBC Four Radio show discussing the history and meaning of the diner, from a cultural perspective, of course. This might sound like the highbrow version of trying to give universal meaning to a slab of meatloaf and a scoop of mashed potatoes served on a plate, swimming in brown gravy; but in fact, commentator Stephen Smith manages to ennoble the diner, giving it a place of importance in American history:

…[T]he diner is the last vestige of a vital part of the American psyche—the frontier. Like the Dodge City saloon it is a place where strangers are thrown together, where normal rules are suspended and anything can happen. And it is this crackle of potentially violent and sexual energy that have drawn so many artists to the diner, and made it not a convenient setting but an engine room of 20th century American culture.

On a more prosaic note, the British explain their obsession for American culture, and, specifically, the American diner, by providing historical facts (very helpful for my purposes, but written in British-speak, just FYI):

So why are these kerbside kitchens a landmark of US culture?

The first such establishment opened in 1872 in Providence, Rhode Island – a “night lunch wagon” to serve those who worked and played long after the restaurants had shut at 20:00.

Its mix of open-all-hours eating and cheap, homemade food proved a hit, and the formula has been repeated ever since.

Today the diner occupies a place in the American heartland. The closest British approximation is not a retro-chic replica diner where hip patrons eat gourmet burgers, but the local pub.

You can listen to an ongoing radio broadcast about the history of the American diner here, but be warned; BBC Four doesn’t leave their broadcasts up for very long, so if you’re interested, you have to listen to them now, since soon they will be gone.

Also, if you want to cook “American style”, the British have been collecting recipes for our most mundane foods, like pancakes. When I’m in the States, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how pancakes are not a global food, but they aren’t, so other cultures end up revering them and, presumably, missing them when they can’t get them in their own country. I don’t remember ever being able to get a pancake in England, actually, so maybe American-style pancakes are more important to them than I knew, and they pine for them when they can’t get them, just like I pine for bangers and mash and the occasional haggis.

Five typical diner dishes (not all fried, surprisingly):

  • Pancakes with sausage
  • Eggs over-easy with home fries and toast
  • Cheeseburger deluxe
  • Turkey club
  • Meatloaf dinner

“It’s comfort food, made from recipes like Mom used to make,” says diner owner Otto Meyer (you’ll have to look at the BBC site for more from Mr. Meyer).

Comfort food ingredients. I don't see gravy anywhere on this chart.

A cup of joe

(It can be helpful having other cultures explain our own history to us, n’est-ce pas?)

  • US colloquialism for coffee
  • Origin unknown, says the OED
  • First recorded use in Jack Smiley’s 1941 book Hash House Lingo on the slang of roadside diners
  • Other diner lingo included “dog soup” for water and “sea dust” for salt
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