The cook is Joe or Carl or Al, hot in a white coat and apron, beady sweat on white forehead, below the white cook’s cap; moody, rarely speaking, looking up for a moment at each new entry. Wiping the griddle, slapping down the hamburger. He repeats Mae’s orders gently, scrapes the griddle, wipes it down with burlap. Moody and silent… Al never speaks. He is no contact. Sometimes he smiles a little at a joke, but he never laughs. Sometimes he looks up at the vivaciousness in Mae’s voice, and then he scrapes the griddle with a spatula, scrapes the grease into an iron trough around the plate. He presses down a hissing hamburger with his spatula. He lays the split buns on the plate to toast and heat. He gathers up stray onions from the plate and heaps them on the meat and presses them in with the spatula. He puts half the bun on top of the meat, paints the other half with melted butter, with thin pickle relish. Holding the bun on the meat, he slips the spatula under the thin pad of meat, flips it over, lays the buttered half on top, and drops the hamburger on a small plate. Quarter of a dill pickle, two black olives between the sandwich. Al skims the plate down the counter like a quoit. And he scrapes his griddle with the spatula and looks moodily at the stew kettle (John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939).I’m quietly celebrating my return to a thirty-inch waist, and that hardly seems like the time to offer a panegyric on junk food, especially having just re-entered the United States. I’ve said before that ‘man food’ is not all fire and grunting, and have waxed opinionated about the value of an educated palate. So, what am I up to?
Best of all, honest American junk food is still served in old-fashioned diners, where nothing much has changed since Steinbeck immortalised the hamburger joints of Route 66. Last night I ate at the Deluxe Town Diner in Watertown, Mass., which serves by its own testimony ‘Industrial Strength Food’. It was all just so. There’s something about a good old-fashioned honest burger in America: in a strange way, it has long reassured a nation that everything will be okay. As long as there is food for workers, then there is work to be done.