Silences are rare when I get together with my family, and they’re usually caused by food. So there we were, three brothers, sister and sister-in-law, in rapt contemplation of the menu at the Miss Florence Diner in Florence, Massachusetts, readying ourselves for breakfast.
Ah, breakfast. There’s a challenge. The American diner or the British caff? Pancake stack or the Full English? Eggs over easy or eggs plain fried? Tricky. Both diner and caff (of the greasy spoon variety) cater to much the same clientele – folk on their way to work, on their way back from work, passing through, popping in, occasional and regular. Both are (or should be) fast, cheerful, cheap, democratic and resolutely non-PC in matters of diet. However, in spite of these generic similarities, I’ve never been able to find a diner in the UK that gave me the same sense of ease and familiarity that I’ve found in the States, or a decent caff of the greasy spoon variety in the US that made me feel at home. Somehow removing either from its social and cultural context removes the heart and point of it.
While greasy spoons are free form – they come in all shapes and sizes and degrees of sophistication – the layout of a diner is more formalised, shaped by the railway carriages or lunch wagons on which they were originally based. A chap called Walter Scott is generally credited with their invention in 1872, and their commercial possibilities were recognised by Philip H. Duprey and Grenville Stoddard, who established the Worcester Lunch Car and Carriage Manufacturing Company in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1906. It was the Crash of 1929 and the Depression of the 1930s that firmly embedded them in the public consciousness, and there they’ve been ever since, celebrated in paintings by Edward Hopper and Norman Rockwell, in films and tv, in fiction and faction, bringing succour and calorific overkill to the nation.
Both forms of eatery vie for offering the least healthy dishes, but the diner definitely has the edge in variety of offering and scale. I counted 75 different dishes under 10 sections on the menu at Miss Florence. But decisions had to be made, so, it was Miss Flo’s Famous Corned Beef Hash & Eggs (‘sunny-side up’), corn bread, orange juice and coffee for me, and variations on eggs, bacon, sausages (links and patties) for everyone else. Rapt menu mediation gave way to a fierce debate as to whether the Miss Florence bacon was better than that at the Bluebonnet Diner, where we had breakfasted the day before. For my taste, the rashers at that came with the pancakes, creamed butter, maple syrup and bacon with scrambled egg on the side at the Bluebonnet, were a little on the puppy’s-tongue-limp side, while my sister suggested that the rashers at Miss Florence’s were too crisp and brittle.
However, the corn beef hash was a noble creation, a great hump of corned beef, potato and onion, well hashed, nicely seasoned and lubricated by two fried eggs. The corn bread was a cloud of sweetness. Several rashers of fragrant shavings of bacon added crunch. In scale, it compared favourably with the soft, fluffy pancakes, sodden with generous quantities proper maple syrup (you always have to ask for the real thing) at the Bluebonnet, but were I to go back for second helpings, in terms of breakfast ballast and satisfaction, there’s little to beat that combination of yeasty fluff, maple sweetness and salt of the pancake, syrup and bacon line up. (Although when it comes to The Supreme Breakfast there are cases to be made for 1. The Ulster Fry; 2. Fried egg and bacon sarnie made with fried white bread and HP sauce; and 3. la granita di caffé con panna e brioche at Irrera in Messina argue that the greatest breakfast of all is; but that is for another time).
In good order, we marched out into the New England chill, suitable fortified and cheered
99 Main St
Florence, MA 01062
00-1 (413) 584-3137
324 King St
Northampton, MA 01060
00-1 (413) 570-7336
NB. Why is most coffee in America so foul – thin, tired spiritless and acrid? It a rare example of the ‘real’ thing being as nasty as the instant version. (With the honourable exception of that made at home by our wonderful hosts in Massachusetts, Patrick & Kathy, who made excellent coffee).