A Clash of Cultures
Charlie’s Diner and Tillie’s kitchen were located in what is now referred to as the South Coast of Massachusetts, USA. But when I was a kid, the area was usually described by the less attractive reality of its two aging, factory towns, Fall River and New Bedford, both sagging from the economic weight of abandoned textile mills and lost jobs.
The diner, a small box of a building, sat along Route 6, the roadway linking the two cities. Charlie, the owner, was a large man whose girth advertised how much he enjoyed feasting on his own offerings. The aroma of the place was the perfume of a traditional truck stop of the era – bacon fat on a hot grill. Quite different from the antiseptic smell of Tillie’s place.
Tillie was my mother. Her domain, a two bedroom cottage about ten miles from Charlie’s, contained the most basic of kitchens – including a four burner gas stove, refrigerator, and a wonky metal eating space about the size of a bridge table.
“No frills” was the basic culinary approach in both kitchens, although every now and then my mother plumbed her family’s DNA to come up with a hearty, aromatic meal that had its origins in the cuisine of her parents’ native Romania. (I must admit that it wasn’t until I was a young adult that I first became familiar with the terms culinary and cuisine. Pronouncing them correctly took a little longer.)
My life intersected with Charlie’s Diner in the summer of 1952 after completing my junior year at Durfee High School. Needing to begin saving for college, I applied for a job.
Anyone who’s ever struggled, even for a moment, with the challenges inherent in food preparation will soon understand what a momentous decision that proved to be. Life altering? Surely. My epiphany would take a circuitous route. (In the kitchen, doesn’t it always?)
Let me be clear. Charlie didn’t hire me to cook. At least that wasn’t his intention. Washing dishes was my job. My work day began while the sun still hung low in the sky. 5:30 AM.
When I arrived for my first day, strips of bacon and a pyramid of home fries were already sizzling on the grill, being pre-cooked by Charlie. He took a break and introduced me to my work station – a pair of sinks side by side – in the back room. His instructions were definitely not appropriated from a manual on the fundamentals of kitchen sanitation. Fill one sink with cold water. The other with hot. Dip a dirty plate in the cold water. Swish it clean with a soaped up rag. Plunge the plate back into the cold water. Then into the hot. Set it on a rack to dry. Charlie’s Rules.
“Got it, Charlie.”
He handed an apron to me and went out front. Soon I heard voices. Customers.
In a moment Charlie was back at my side. Distressed. “The Goddamn short order guy didn’t show up again,” he fumed. “Do ya know how to make eggs?”
Without thinking I said: “Sure.”
My parents had often told me never to turn down an honest offer to get ahead in life. “Got an opportunity? Seize it!” So I did. But I should have given it some thought. Panic gripped me. Truth was I only sort of knew how to make eggs.
Soon I was on center stage performing before an audience of four rough looking guys sitting at the counter. Charlie’s morning regulars.
He repeated their order to me. “OK. Four scrambled. All ya have to do with the bacon and potatoes is heat ‘em up a bit on the grill. Don’t forget the toast. Butter’s already melted in that little pan. Use that small paint brush.”
I cracked the eggs. Actually crushed a couple of them. Nervously added a little milk. Used a fork as a whisk. Hoped no one noticed me trying to pick shells out of the mix. I lined up four plates and thought I did a rather artistic job filling them up.
Charlie balanced three of the plates on his meaty left arm. Carried the other in his hand. And I took a deep breath. Like waiting for an executioner to pronounce sentence. Then I heard it.
“Hey Charlie, these scrambled eggs is burned.”
In an instant Charlie was on me, his breath hotter than the heat coming off the grill.
“Mort! Where’d the hell you learn to make eggs like this?”
I responded quickly. And honestly.
“From my mother.”
The guys at the counter laughed. Not Charlie, though. “Your mother? Jeeze. Get outta my way. Here’s how ya make scrambled eggs. Soft. You make ‘em soft.”
Soft? Soft eggs? I’d never heard that term used in my mother’s kitchen. It was as foreign in our home as “rare” or “medium rare.”
“Well done” was the only way to cook anything. Eggs included.
So, thanks Charlie, for setting me straight. Haven’t burned an egg in decades.
First published December 2016