Let’s get first things first: I am a diner gal. I loooove a good diner. I feel reeeeal comfortable in a vinyl booth, with a laminated menu in my hands, stacking up little jelly pots and creamer pods.
I came of age in diners. I think many of you did, also. There was a Denny’s down the road from my house growing up, and it was one of the few places aside from “the movies” and “WAL*MART” that my friends and I would go when we got driver’s licenses. Too young for bars, we hung out in diners. You couldn’t be your teenaged self at home: your parents might overhear! Your siblings might interfere! But within the confines of your booth at the diner, you could be open with your teenaged secrets: crushes, cliques, fears, and dreams. GOSSIP. LOTS OF TEENAGED GOSSIP. When my high school friends returned to the diner as adults, naturally we reverted to gossiping about all of those folks we shared yearbook real estate with.
This is a high school story.
This is a “when worlds collide” story.
This is a story about a grilled cheese sandwich with a slice of tomato.
In high school, my Spanish class took a field trip to New York City. This was my first trip to my current home that I’d really remember, although I’d visited as a child and have faint memories of crowds. I remember being TERRIFIED. The big Big Apple was daunting to me, a girl whose world wasn’t much bigger than her home, her high school, and the Denny’s on the Parkway.
As a class, we went to a matinee of a Spanish-language performance of La Casa de Bernarda Alba, which we’d read in school. We visited the Museo del Barrio. We got lost trying to figure out the grid of streets (I KNOW.) This trip was one of two pivotal important class trips to The Big Apple that would slowly reveal to me that New York City was my destiny, and set it up as an impossible dream I could only one day HOPE to achieve. And then we boarded a bus back home.
On our drive back, the schedule called for a dinner break. We left the highway to, as a class, have dinner at a diner in New Jersey. It was an understated diner, compared to the glistening silver ones you see on the New Jersey turnpike, but it was exciting nonetheless. The day’s events gave me a tiny taste of freedom that both exhilarated and terrified me, giving me a glimpse into a glittering future that would one day be my life. But the diner setting brought back a sense of the familiar: I know diners. For now, and for a while longer, I wouldn’t be ready for the Big Apple. But another thing was —
I wasn’t ready to order. I’d recently become a vegetarian, and was past the stage of spaghetti and PB&J, just trying to figure out HOW to feed myself without Chicken Nuggets. DID I MENTION MY WORLD WAS SMALL?? I asked my classmates what they were going to order, and one of my table-mates advised the following:
“Grilled cheese sandwich with a slice of tomato.”
Now, I’d had a grilled cheese sandwich before. It wasn’t one of my staples growing up, but I was familiar with it. The TOMATO, however: that was the twist. How exotic! How fitting! I ordered it, feeling BRAVE. Riding the adrenaline rush of what was my first “adult” experience in the Big City, I was ready to thrill my palate with a whole new flavor profile.
My sandwich arrived, BURNED TO A CRISP. Not what I expected. Kinda like this whole trip. But I took a chance, took a bite, and I’LL BE DAMNED. It was the best grilled cheese sandwich I’ve ever had. Still, to this day! The charcoal on the outside, the rich cheese on the inside, the juicy thin slice of tomato, it was PERFECTION.
Go to any diner in the world and you’ll probably be able to order a grilled cheese with a slice of tomato. I’m bettin’ it’ll come with a pickle on the side, to boot. The thing about diners ‘n me is that they always feel like home. The same sandwiches cut into 4 triangles. The same omelettes and french fries. Butter wrapped in gold foil. Coffee so hot it can be used as a heat source to warm your chilly hands, on a cold day. I had my first date with my boyfriend at the Good Stuff Diner, my favorite in the city, and it’s a real diner: you can get a belly-full of food for cheap, a rarity in the city. Even when I was at my most destitute, I could go here and order the Eggplant Rollatini and it would come with a side salad that I would eat there, and bring the main dish home to save for several meals. It’s not my hometown Denny’s, but it’s pretty close: cakes spin in a display just inside the door, the color scheme is orange and bright, the booths are roomy and squishy. Diners will always be a home-away-from-home. And grilled cheese is still a comfort food, even though I make my gluten-free version at home these days.
Everyone has a diner that feels like “home” to them. And everyone has that special grilled cheese recipe that they vehemently believe is the best. My perfect grilled cheese is that charred-to-a-crisp Grilled Cheese and Tomato that I ate on one of the most important days of my adult life. If you’re ever driving through New Jersey…
Bendix Diner photo via Wikimedia Commons