America has given the world two things: baseball and jazz,” said a great professor of political philosophy one fine New England morning. This erudite patriot wouldn’t mind if I added a third item: the diner. But while Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax ruled the diamond in their days, and Benny Goodman could sing, sing, sing, the lack of a proper kosher diner in America should prompt men of conscience to ask: Would such a thing be good for the Jews? Yes, of course. Say what you will about diners, their ethos has something to teach all Americans, Jewish and gentile.
What is the ethos of the diner? As Leo Strauss said of the social sciences: low but solid ground. Diner food is cheap and caloric, fueling the cross-class grind sustaining civilization. Eggs poached, over-easy, over-medium, scrambled plain or with salami or salmon, just the whites, hard boiled, or in omelette-form with vegetables and cheese. Wheat or white or rye toast, which can also bookend tuna, egg-salad, corned-beef, and pastrami sandwiches. Breakfast potatoes. Oatmeal. Hash, bacon, sausage. Coffee blacker than death and bitter as life out of a thick white mug laved in grease from the Nixon years. A rightly-constituted diner serves breakfast fare twenty-four hours a day, defending the proposition that it’s always morning in America.
Diners teach us that our kind of people isn’t the center of the universe. At the Tastee Diner in my hometown of Bethesda, I’ve sat near construction workers after a long day, cops before a long night, consultants, lawyers, real-estate agents, teachers, a tired dad and kids giving mom a break on a Thursday evening. Orthodox Jews self-segregate by wealth the same as everyone, and a kosher diner would help us resist the great divvying-up.
Diners mostly attract men, but a boy and a girl have been known to see a movie and then adjourn to a diner for milkshakes and fries. A finer test for spousehood has yet to be devised. Fries are greasy finger food, but there’s a way to be neat about it. As for milkshakes, they are properly served in an upside-down cone-shaped glass with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry. But it’s come to my attention that some diners do not also bring the sidecar, the steel vessel in which ice cream, milk, and chocolate syrup are churned from three into one. Such establishments, to quote President Lincoln in a different context, “belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle!” If the sidecar is brought then boy and girl can commence an ordeal of equitable sharing unaided by the translucent perimeter of glass. Matchmakers from Anatevka to Zichron Yaakov, take note.
The ideal kosher diner is open on every untitled day of the Mosaic year. You’re greeted by a sehnsuchtvoll fry cook presiding over a dozen-seat counter top, cushions colored like strawberry frosting. One seat is always broken, admonishing would-be revolutionaries that nothing is whole this side of paradise. The booths are about as comfortable as pews, but we come here to work, not to laze. The waitress knows your order before you’ve opened your mouth. You wanted something else for a change? For half a millennium the West has been trashing stuff that works for the sin of not working perfectly. Don’t join in the baleful fun.
I see you’re curious about the menu: Will it be meat or will it be dairy? There’s a case to be made for either. So I’ll do what Americans usually do in the face of tough choices, which is stick to my guns against the godless psychopaths in opposition. Count me for meat. Many Jews are lactose intolerant. By contrast I know roughly eight (and like roughly three) kosher-keeping vegetarians. Modern Technology has also concocted nut- or whatever-based substitutes for cheese, yogurt, and cream that, when complemented by other diner flavors, will subdue all rational longings for the original dairy forms. On meat substitutes, what’re your thoughts? Tofu-based corned beef hash? Forget about it.
Why hasn’t someone kashered the all-American diner, the way they did the all-American pizza shop and steakhouse? I think the answer is that diner food is comfort food, and comfort food is cultural. In the old country we ate kugel, yapchik, rugelach, brisket. And we drank tea, out of a glass (imitatio Russkiy, I’m pretty sure) rather than earthenware. Maybe we should stick to what we know.
I hear the objection. And you know what? Our kosher diner should serve Bubby’s repast as well, albeit––if Bubby will suffer the suggestion––with a tad less margarine. The point is that we Jews have always adopted some of the culture local to the nation hosting us. If summer vacations, short-cut suits, and democratic politics deserve rabbinic supervision, so does the diner.
I hope to frequent a kosher diner soon. All things considered, it’ll probably be in Brooklyn. Join me there next time you’re in need of cast-iron egalitarian hope, that electric American grace that for four centuries has summoned the world’s castaways to worship God, create industries, and fire rifles for the glory of a sleepless imperial republic. Or if you just want to drink strong coffee and schmooze.
Cole S. Aronson studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion in the Judean hills.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.