The great American restaurant: The diner

Thanks to almost 30 years of the Food Network and food magazines, the US is finally waking up to eating good food. This is not to say there was no interest in food before. Look no further that the Amish communities with their all organic and local only fare -long before that was even a thing. For too long Americans in general only considered food as fuel for the body. Generally, Thanksgiving is the only exception when families cook and sit together to eat. Of course, there have always been restaurants around the country that venerated food. I think of Locke Ober’s in Boston, which my dad loved, and of course many others. Speaking of the Food Network, think of all the restaurants Guy Fieri features in his Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives show, revealing some of the generations old, mom and pop restaurants that are temples of food.

It is my opinion that diners are the finest representation of American food and therefore, culture. It boils down (sorry for the pun) to the Puritan/Protestant DNA, of our work ethic ingrained in our culture; work is the way to earn your salvation. It means one must have a big breakfast to work all day towards one’s goal. Thus the big breakfast at the diner, who has time to make eggs and toast and hash browns, etc, etc, at 5 in the morning? Lunch is a non-event: I have seen people wolfing a slice of pizza while they walk, a sandwich at one’s desk is more than acceptable, it is respected as a sign of your hard work, taking your time for lunch means you are a slacker.

My love for diners started way back in 1983, my freshman year in college in a small town outside of Boston. Exploring the town, I discovered Wilson’s diner. Its shiny blue and chrome was beckoning, inviting. What a discovery! It looked like a railroad car that was permanently placed there. And what a breakfast they had, buttery everything. Big dollops of butter to make the pancakes, the eggs, the omelets, the hash browns, everything! The first times I went with my best friend Theo who quickly got to chatting with the staff in Greek. I was amazed at the coincidence until I learnt that many, if not most of the New England diners are family owned and run by hardworking Greek immigrants. There is obvious irony in the fact that a Greek family was cooking perfectly buttery, greasy American breakfasts. I immediately fell in love with Wilson’s and walked the couple of miles  -sometimes in foot deep snow- into town on Saturdays for my breakfast: eggs, hash browns, bacon, sausage, pancakes, I tried everything and everything was delicious. During those four years of college I explored other diners: The Blue Diner in Boston, and the Deluxe Town Diner in Watertown, quickly cementing my love for diners and what they represent.

Since then I have had the chance to discover many diners and I always make it a point, whenever and wherever possible to breakfast in a diner: The Empire Diner in Chelsea (The New York one, sorry) around the corner from my apartment after college, The Agawam Diner near Newburyport where I lived for a winter, tiny Casey’s Diner in Natick where I would sometimes take my advisory group, it is so small it does not even have a regular door, but a sliding door which takes up less space, the famous Red Arrow Diner in Manchester New Hampshire where presidential candidates go get their photo taken during the primary election campaign. There are not many diners outside of the Northeast, but that does not mean that there are not great breakfast places that do the job of the diner: Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe in Chapel Hill is one of them. I even held the oral component of my final exams there; the students had to order their breakfast in Spanish from the wonderful Latino staff (although the ownership was Greek!) to pass the class! Visiting the University of Virginia, I discovered the White Spot on which I wrote one of my earliest posts (you are going to have to scroll way down…). The Clover Grill in New Orleans, I even bought their T-shirt: “We love to fry, and it shows”, Plato’s Diner in Maryland, and so on.

The other day I discovered The Boynton Diner in Boynton Beach in Florida, and I am happy to report it is a perfect specimen of the species: great waitresses, perfect breakfast, and, of course, an endless cup of piping hot coffee.

Family holiday in Chapel Hill

This year I had the privilege of ending my summer holiday by inviting my younger sister and her two oldest kids to spend a few days with me in Chapel Hill. It was fantastic! We all flew at the end of July into North Carolina only to find that the battery had died on old Helmut. So the next day, after a delicious breakfast at Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe and jump starting the car, we headed out to Audi Cary where they lent us a wonderful Q5 for the day while they changed the battery!

We drove to Raleigh where we visited Ray Price Harley Davidson, with its great drag racing museum. Then we went to downtown where we visited the Museum of Natural Sciences and had lunch at the Museum of History.

During our ten days here we went to church, visited every corner of campus, the Basketball Museum, the Planetarium, the Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, Wilson Library, the Ackland Museum, Hillsborough with its fantastic Matthew´s chocolates and Ayr Mount plantation, we even went to Duke (shhhh!!) and Durham.

They met some of my favorite people from Chapel Hill: my classmate, office mate, and little sister (in the absence of my real little sister) Alejandra who picked us up at the airport, Patrick my mailman, the folks at Ye Olde Waffle Shop, Missy Julian Fox, the folks at the Ronald McDonald House, Father Bill and Adam at church, the folks at Trader Joe’s, even the High Priest, Professor Frank Dominguez.

The culinary experience was just as awesome, we went to Five Guys, Suttons, Maple View farm for ice cream, Buns for their grilled salmon sandwich, Mellow Mushroom for Pizza, Top of the Hill, Akai Hana for sushi, and the highlight being North Carolina barbecue.

Other highlights were when we played soccer on one of the soccer fields, or when we set up the big screen digital projector home theater to watch Disney’s Alexander and Annie, volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill, visiting the Mall (and the outlet mall), Dick’s Sporting Goods, Target, and of course Walmart, which Jimmy loved.

We had a blast. My niece, infused by the entrepreneurial spirit of the land set up a table on the street to sell her hand-made bracelets. Unfortunately, living in a dead-end street in August meant that she did not have many costumers – although she did manage a couple of sales, the proceeds of which she donated to the Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill!

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Why a Ph.D.? (Revisited)

After the first year of my doctorate program, and with a couple of weeks of distance to reflect and let it all sink in, it is time to come up with some road markers, some conclusions:

The program is everything I was expecting for and much, much more.

I have learnt so much, I have “discovered” Medieval and 18th C. Spanish Lit. – where have I been hiding for my whole life? Part of the secret to my discovery has been having Profs. Domínguez, and Gómez-Castellano as my teachers. They are the real deal: knowledgeable, patient, encouraging, understanding, I could not have wished for better role models.

My colleagues are also top, top shelf, both in the Masters and Ph.D. programs, in Spanish French and Italian: Sam, Ruben, Thomas, Anne, Emily, Miguel, Zully, Andrew, Rob, Sarah, Drew, Massi, K-N, Martina, Gloria, et cetera, et cetera.

The other side of the coin, my teaching experience has also been out of sight. I have taught three fantastic classes of Intermediate level Spanish language, 203. I have been very impressed with my students, a great, diverse, fun, brilliant mix. It has been a thrill teaching – even at 8:00 am. We had great discussions, games, learning moments, fun and end of the term breakfasts at Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe, where the students ordered their breakfasts in Spanish!

Beyond the in-house academic powerhouses, I have met people I never expected to meet: David Gies – Jedi Master of 18th Century Spanish Lit. (UVA) and Ana Rueda, the grande dame of 18th Century Spanish Lit. (UK) (who I even had the chance to pick up at the airport and have a drink before a lecture!). I also met novelist and journalist Rosa Montero and Spanish choreographer and ex-dancer Nacho Duato, not bad for a village. And speaking of dance, I saw The Alvin Ailey, Martha Graham and Marie Chouinard dance companies, the Monteverdi and Cleveland Orchestras, heard Verdi’s Aida, and over a dozen different takes on Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, et cetera, et cetera.

Yes, the first semester was mayhem, and yes the last week of the Spring semester was Hell, but all in all,Magnolias Ale and Ruben Sunrise going to class Sunrise going to class a very positive experience.