Take a Chance with Dead Eye on the Side

The first job I loved was at my neighborhood diner. Bob’s Diner sits hard up against a little community cemetery which is why one of it’s mottos is “A Monumental Eating Experience.” The other is “Where Good People Meet to Eat.” There were three waitresses, all middle-aged women working to supplement their husband’s salaries. Then there was me, 17 years old, freshly kicked out of college. They wore the standard polyester white uniform with a sky blue apron. I found a bunch of vintage cotton uniforms at the Salvation Army that required starching and ironing before each shift. I was lousy at keeping my station of three booths and a corner of the counter content. The women taught me, I learned as fast as possible and, by the middle of my second week I was pretty good. By the end of that week, I accomplished the delicate balance of four plates up each arm and delivering them in one piece to my customers.

Most times I worked the breakfast shift–7 a.m. to 3 p.m. The owner scheduled me for the 6 p.m. to midnight shift twice before Dad came in and told him he didn’t like his daughter out that late. His complaint stemmed from being the director of the local settlement house, a position equivalent in authority to the village priest. The diner’s late night customers were what he called creeps–boys and young men who had earned a place on his radar. I had a lot of fun sharpening sassy rejoinders on them that Dad could appreciate but not so much to dispense on near to, if not actual, troublemakers.

At the end of the lunch rush, in the near deserted hour between the early and the evening shift, the waitresses took over the long corner booth with the most spectacular view of the cemetery. They talked about the customers, their kids, the prospects of their husbands losing their jobs with the neighborhood mills closing, and everything else occurring in their lives. Impossibly young, I couldn’t add to the conversation except when a couple of them suggested they could fix me up with a son or nephew. Then I stammered a burst of apprehension given I never had a boyfriend before and was unsure I’d know what to do with one if I did.

After about two months, the owner took me aside and said he had to let me go because six months before he’d promised a job to a girl who had been a classmate of mine. She’d been the smartest in our school but, soon after graduation, developed what was then called a nervous condition that sent her away to a hospital. She was out now and her mother remined the owner of his promise. The waitresses send me off with long hugs, the cook made up a special lunch, and the owner gave me one of the diner’s signature mugs.

My career as a waitress stretched through most of my young adult life. I gravitated toward diners, bars and family restaurants, except for a short stint at a pseudo-French restaurant where my uniform consisted of a low-cut tight black velvet corset, a short tulle skirt cinched tight with a white lace-edged apron, black stockings, and heels. If I am any kind of writer it’s due to waitress jobs. I learned more from them than I every did in college and proven more valuable than an expensive M.F.A. program. Focus, organization, multi-tasking, patience, humorous inter-personal skills, culinary discernment–any competence I have in these derive from many many hours rushing about while balancing plates and trays to tables where hungry customers waited.

Hash with a Side of Poached egg or, in diner lingo, Take a Chance with Dead Eye on the Side.

Hash is very simple and the recipe goes like this:

Take left-over meat from the refrigerator. Most people think of corned beef but I’ve made it with whatever meat remains behind from dinner, including duck and fish.

Chop the meat up fine–use a food processor. Add to it minced onion and, if you like, minced cooked potatoes and vegetables. Season to taste, being judicious about adding salt since there may already be a ton from the original meal.

Make some kind of binding: A basic white sauce (2 tablespoons melted butter and flour, stir, add 1 cup warm milk, stir until thicken) or gravy. Pour into the meat and mix well.

Heat a cast iron or heavy skillet, swirl just a bit of vegetable oil or spray Pam. Dump in the meat, press evenly across the surface, and cook slowly over medium high heat. Watch carefully but don’t bother it as a crust forms on the bottom–about 15 minutes. Once it’s nice and brown, gently flip the meat over–you may have to do this in pieces. Cook until a crust forms on that side.

When done, slide onto plates in serving-size portions. Add a poached or sunny-side up egg on top.