By MICHAEL PERKINS
I ALWAYS SCRATCH MY HEAD WHEN I SEE AN EATERY sporting a sign that boasts “American Cuisine”, and often have to suppress an urge to step inside such joints to ask the proprietor to explain just what that is. If there is one thing about this sprawling broad nation that can’t be conveniently corralled and branded, it’s the act of eating. Riff through a short stack of Instagrams to see the immense variety of foodstuffs that make people say yum. And as for the places where we decide to stoke up….what they look like, how they serve us, how they feel….well, that’s a never-ending task, and joy, for the everyday photographer.
Eating is, of course, more than mere nourishment for the gut; it’s also a repast for the spirit, and, as such, it’s an ongoing human drama, constantly being shuffled and re-shuffled as we mix, mingle, disperse, adjourn and regroup in everything from white linen temples of taste to gutbucket cafes occupying speck of turf on endless highways. It’s odd that there’s been such an explosion of late in the photographing of food per se, when it’s the places where it’s plated up that hold the real stories. It’s all American, and it’s always a new story.
I particularly love to chronicle the diners and dives that are on the verge of winking out of existence, since they possess a very personalized history, especially when compared with the super-chains and cookie-cutter quick stops. I look for restaurants with “specialities of the house”, with furniture that’s so old that nobody on staff can remember when it wasn’t there. Click. I yearn for signage that calls from the dark vault of collective memory. Bring on the Dad’s Root Beer. Click. I relish places where the dominant light comes through grimy windows that give directly out onto the street. Click. I want to see what you can find to eat at the “last chance for food, next 25 mi.” Click. I listen for stories from ladies who still scratch your order down with a stubby pencil and a makeshift pad. Click. Click. Click.
In America, it’s never just “something to eat”. It’s “something to eat” along with all the non-food side dishes mixed in. And, sure, you might find a whiff of such visual adventure in Denny’s #4,658. Hey, it can happen. But some places serve up a smorgasbord of sensory information piping hot and ready to jump into your camera, and that’s the kind of gourmet trip I seek.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
Truck Driver: Give me some more of this poison you call coffee.
Waitress: I notice you’re on your third cup…
Truck Driver: I like your sugar.
They Drive By Night, Warner Brothers, 1940
AMERICANS CERTAINLY DID NOT INVENT THE IDEA OF STOPPING OFF FOR CHOW “ON THE WAY” TO WHEREVER. The roadside taverns and eateries that dot the globe in the spaces between village and town are the stuff of worldwide legend. Call it the “ye olde inn” tradition. However, in the 20th century, we Yanks did our bit in contributing to the romance of road food. Hey, you’re motoring across the country in your new Ford/Buick/Merrie Oldsmobile anyway, so you need some kind of, let’s call it grub infrastructure, laid out along the route.
Mind you, these won’t be the same restaurants where Grandma and the kids tuck in of a Sunday supper. We leave the linens to the landed gentry: simply paper napkins here, bub. The best “joints” actually resemble trailers more than restaurants, with the menu ranging from non-poisonous to “not bad”, but not much wider. Diners and dives don’t pull down Michelin stars and Zagat raves. But they do shape our traveling, and photographic, experiences. And now that we’re beyond the first great Golden Age of Motoring (maybe the only one, come to think of it), photo-documenting these decaying munch museums is a must.
I love the curvy chrome and Deco streamlining that forms the shell of many joints. I love them even more in their present state of slow disintegration,when the streamlining isn’t too straight, the chrome gives off an apologetic, latter-day patina, and all the angles don’t quite square up. My photographer’s eye likes these temples of makeshift cuisine because they are cheap and cheesy. They’re vulgar and obvious in their blinky, half-dead neon, kitschy colors and over-ripe graphics, and as Sinatra used to sing, that’s America to me. Love it.
Some of my favorite joints are far more dinosaur than diner, but, when you can squeeze off a frame or two of their fading glory, and amble inside for a five dollar cheeseburger deluxe, heck, boyo, that’s a combo plate you can’t even get at the Ritz. And if I could ever find the dazzling dame who modeled for the drawing of a waitress on the side of all those millions of ketchup squeeze bottles, that would be love at first sight.
Talk about your latter-day Mona Lisa. With fries.