Whenever Yesenia & I have a certain kind of day - the mopey, long, unproductive kind on my part and the sour annoying co-workers kind on hers - about the only thing we can gather enough strength to drag ourselves to eat is the local diner. Which pretty much guarantees not so much an enjoyable meal, but one in which the culinary punishment we inflict upon ourselves seems to cap the day off with just the right flavor of defeat.
Of course, the diner we frequent is one of those diners that puts on airs. The menu is full of dish names that the owner clearly cribbed off of a real restaurant menu, at some point in the mid-90s. But if you put Santa Fe Salads, Eggplant Wraps with Baby Greens and Pesto and Panini Thing-a-Mabobs on the list, you should probably back that up by learning how to make them, or at the very least tasting one at some point so that you have a general target at which to aim for your own version.
But a diner is always a diner, and that's what both bad and good about it. You're not going to go in there expecting the sublime and revelatory dining experience of a lifetime. The food is not going to send you into paroxysms of orgasmic delight. But you might just get yourself a pretty fucking awesome waffle at a quarter to one in the morning, and sometimes, that's the only thing in the world you want.
Me, I can't seem to order anything other than the eponymous Turkey Burger Deluxe, usually with cheddar cheese. Anytime I try something else, I'm filled with the odd sort of regret that comes from not being disappointed in quite the way you're accustomed. See, it's not like I love those T.B.D's. It's just that the whole diner experience is such a ritualized pattern that any deviation from it leaves me wholly unsatisfied.
To complete my ritual of the T.B.D., I need all my condiments lined up, and that always proves an exercise in frustration, made all the more poignant by the fact that we only go seeking comfort food, and comfort food has to be really exact in order to achieve the desired results - i.e., comfort. I can usually get the ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard and Tabasco that I require to enter my alpha state. But the most elusive condiment, curiously, turns out to be simple relish. Waiters look at me as if I'd asked for a mound of saffron, or boiled silkworm cocoons - apparently, relish is a rare and precious commodity.
Once, a waiter brought me out a plate of sliced radish, and I was so embarrassed for both him and me that I said 'thanks' and simply accepted it. Leaving him with the impression that I was going to put radish slices on my cheeseburger, and that this was the only thing in the world that could bring that fucking grilled meat slab to perfection. I wonder if he just had to try that for himself, later.
But the relish shortage is only in New York and New Jersey. Everywhere else, particularly in New England, they have giant vats of the stuff near the door, usually next to the Lobster tank. Well, no, but you can get it and they don't look like you asked them to borrow a lung when you ask for it by name. They blink recognition and then - gasp! - bring it to the table without comment. The holiest of holies, Newport Creamery actually has a jar of the stuff right on the table, so you don't have to debase yourself by asking. And it's the good kind, too: hamburger relish, the red and green kind, like it's Christmas every day you order a burger, there. Now, that's civilization.
Tonight, I had a little more luck than usual. The waiter - perhaps the same one as a couple of years ago - clearly at first thought I was asking for a radish. "Can I get relish?," I asked. His brow furrowed, and he replied, questioningly, "Radish?," with that very soft latino 'D' that can be confused for an 'L' if you haven't been married to a Puerto Rican for the last seven years. I have been married to one, so I caught it and said, gently but forcefully, "Not radish... relish. Hamburger relish? Pickle relish?" I made a chopping gesture over the pickle sitting on top of my cole slaw.
"I'll see what I can do." He said, still not with what I'd exactly call the light of recognition shining in his eyes. Still, when the burger came, there it was: a small dish full of relish. I'm really going to have to learn the Spanish word for relish so that I can spare everyone the suspense in the future.
And Yesenia? She had the Waldorf Salad. It looked good. But not... comforting.