Friday, July 31, 2009

Breakfast at Blanche’s

One of our summer rituals is acting out the characters who inhabit the legendary breakfast spot, Blanche’s Diner. HH is the waiter and I am the cook. He takes the orders and serves the plates while I remain in the kitchen cooking. Each morning he constructs a small door between the kitchen and the living room, made from the lids of his two plastic toy tubs to make sure I stay in the kitchen. I’m forbidden to leave.

We have one customer, Mama, who eats alone on the front porch. HH eats his breakfast in the kitchen, crawling up on a stool that is still too high for him to manage comfortably, or safely, but that’s the way he likes it. He doesn’t have too much trouble mounting the stool but getting down from it is precarious and about 50% of the time he ends up on the floor. It doesn’t matter. He just picks himself up and goes about his work. Serving breakfast is serious business for HH and he isn’t going to let a little spill off the stool stop him. HH has a special voice he uses when he adopts the character of the waiter Joe. It’s a very New York sort of accent, classic 1950’s Cab driver style and he insists that I use the same style of speech. It’s tough, street talk with a bit of swagger and attitude, a cartoon version of hash slingers from another era and nothing at all like the real Blanche’s Diner.

Earlier this week we made our annual visit to the shrine of small town truck stop food in this corner of the Catskills. Mama was out of town and the two of us set off early in the morning to pick up grass seed and Pokémon cards – he had his shopping list and I had mine. On the way back we pulled in to Blanche’s and settled in at the counter for breakfast.

The diner has been there for as long as anyone can remember, sitting on the crest of a hill on highway 17B, a few yards down the road from Mongaup Valley in the town of Bethel, NY. Most of the customers are regulars. If you didn’t know it was there you probably would just fly right by it at 55MPH on the two-lane road. I’ve missed it a few times, even when I was actually looking for it. It’s not a silver metal airstream-style diner that catches your eye. There’s no flashing lights or paved parking lot, just a small sign that says “Blanche’s Diner” in front of a modest wooden building.

Blanche’s is a local institution. The county judges used to hold their regular weekly conferences over breakfast at Blanche’s, there is always a police cruiser in the parking lot, and on our most recent visit one of our town council members was rehearsing a speech he was about to give on the new natural gas pipeline. For decades a local radio station would call Blanche each morning to report the weather. Blanche doesn’t do the weather anymore, but she still runs the place. Normally she sits at the counter talking with customers until someone wanders over to the cash register to pay. Then she slowly gets up and takes their money, offering lollipops to the children, always checking with their parents first to make sure it’s ok.

Penny and Bud do most of the heavy lifting. Penny is the perky blonde waitress who never forgets a face and Bud is the cook, cool and steady and determined to give you a side of potatoes with your eggs whether you want them or not. They have both been there for as long as I have known the place, but they haven’t seemed to age. The linoleum that used to be under Bud’s feet is about the only place that looks the worse for wear. Penny knows what most people want before they say a word. “Western, wheat toast, coffee light – right?” She confirms rather than takes orders most of the time. You rarely see a menu at Blanche’s. They exist, but even irregular regulars like me are loath to admit we haven’t committed the offerings to heart.

HH loved every minute of it. We sat on short stools at the end of the long half-circle counter that rings the prep area. From there we could see Bud working the grill and Penny placing orders and picking up food. To our immediate left were a dozen large paper coffee filters filled with fresh ground coffee ready to drop into the steaming BUN. We were sitting on the business end of the counter which was perfect for us because we consider ourselves as part of the team. HH ordered large – a short stack, side of bacon, side of links and milk. He ate it all without lifting his eyes from Penny and Bud for any longer than it took him to spear a piece of pancake.

I don’t claim to know what prompts HH to want to inhabit one character or another or why assuming the roles of waiter and cook thrill him like they do, but I love it all probably as much as he does. My reasons are likely different than his; there’s a dash of nostalgia in it for me, American Diners are one of the things I miss living in Europe, the chatter between the cook and the waiters, the small-talk the customers exchange, all in my native tongue, all familiar and speaking of home.

In a few days we will be returning to Cologne, but I expect we will be taking a little bit of America with us. If you happen to be walking under our kitchen window one morning on the Brüsseler Platz, you might just hear the sound of two street-wise New Yorkers serving up an American breakfast of eggs, bacon and toast, to Mama, our one and only customer. And even if she’d rather be having a brötchen with butter, she’ll eat it with a smile, she’s a regular.

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