March 26, 2008

Fuzzy Duck and the Diner at the Center of the World

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“There is one huge industrial diner kitchen in the middle of the earth, and it sends the exact same food to every diner in the world via a system of tubes.”
— My Dad, 1994

When I was eight, I didn’t really believe that there was one diner in the center of the earth, surrounded by melted magma and staffed by a large extended family of subterranean Greeks. But assuming that my dad was only exaggerating slightly, I did harbor a “one kitchen, all the same food” world view until my mid-teens.
It was then that learning permits were reluctantly dolled out by the state, allowing car-loads of teens to drive from diner to diner, tasting the local wares and deciding which places were tops. Diners are open later than normal restaurants, and, most importantly, are more tolerant of patrons “acting the fool,” something people in their mid-teens have been known to do. It was during these pre-fake ID high school diner days that I learned an important truth: All diners are not created equal, but most diners are the best places on earth.
Late nights at a diner are great places to snack. You can eat as much or as little as you please. My go-to order at the State Street Diner is a cheeseburger with cheese fries and a black and white milkshake. I consider this a light diner meal. A true diner feast includes more than one main dish. My Sunday morning order at Manos, for example, is three pancakes, one fried egg, one scrambled egg, cheese fries and a half order of mozzarella sticks. Any stop at a diner for me must include cheese fries. I call this the cheese fries constant.
If I stray from my regular two orders, it’s usually to get waffles with ice cream. Waffles and ice cream are a strange match, and for that reason they are acceptable to eat at any hour of the day. Is it an indulgent breakfast? Is it a forward-looking dessert? I’m not sure, but they’re delicious all the time. Since my move away from the dining halls, I eat approximately 68 percent less waffles and ice cream. (Down from my all-time high frequency of three times a week at dinner.) The snack of waffles with ice cream (and cheese fries) helps me fulfill my two diner objectives: 1) I feel bad about how much disgusting food I ate. 2) I have to go home and lie on the floor in a food coma.
Each diner has its own culture — its own fingerprint, if you will. My friends and I have combined the words diner and culture to create a new word: “Dulture.” Dul · ture (noun) — the unique menu options, service standards, odor, bathroom availability and people watching opportunities exhibited by individual diner-style restaurants in the United States.
Of my two favorite diners in Ithaca (State Street and Manos), Manos has a more inviting Dulture. It attracts a little more of an I.C. crowd, but you can get free wireless from the hotel across the street and they are generous with coffee refills. Granted, Manos is filthy, but that is part of the appeal. The bathroom in Manos is so dirty that I literally have to hold my breath to avoid throwing up, but hey, you can eat like a (fat, disgusting) king for 15 bucks. Sophomore year I went to Manos at least once a week and for some reason they thought I was a med student. They called my group of friends “the doctors.” We never corrected them.
The State Street Diner attracts a crowd of drunken scary people at all hours of the day. 2 a.m.? Okay, the bars just let out, and a drunken scary crowd is acceptable. But why is there a drunken scary crowd at four in the afternoon? On a Wednesday? This makes the State Street Diner fun in that “I hope nobody throws a ketchup bottle at my head” way.
But while Dulture is important, taste always casts the deciding vote when it comes to selecting diners. For example: my favorite diner at home is “The Rape Diner.” As most native Long Islanders know, the Seacrest diner was the location of a truly horrific robbery 20+ years ago. While that would put most restaurants or stores out of business … you really have to try those cheese fries.
Being murdered in a diner is rare, but getting food poisoning is sadly not. Let’s face facts: a hamburger at a diner is not the “local meat” you get at Olivia’s. Be safe out there; only order something you think the diner sells a lot of. Fried foods, sandwiches and breakfast foods are probably safe. That list was comprised of foods I eat at diners, and was included in the column to give myself a false sense of security. Whatever you do, never, EVER order entrées at a diner. You might end up with a plate full of fuzzy duck. This happened to someone I know (My dad). The fuzz was mold.
I’m now going to be writing a column every week from now until graduation. This is your final call to have your favorite snacks called out. I can be found in the back booth at Manos most weeknights. Look for a guy with a black and white milkshake, cheese fries, pickles, a cheeseburger, turkey BLT, large diet Coke, pancakes, side of bacon, white toast with butter, two eggs “any style” and a big ole’ grin on his face. Or, as always, I can be reached at Niesenbaum@gmail.com.