Sunday 21 January 2018

Last night's TV - America on a Plate: the Story of the Diner

Alice-Azania Jarvis on a programme that examined an institution of American life

How's this for an idea? You go to America. Go on. Get a nice shiny red car, drive around. Zoom through the streets of Manhattan with the top down, nip south to Nashville.

And eat. Lots and lots of hearty American fare. Diner fare. All the while getting paid for it, because this is work – or it is if you're Stephen Smith, the lucky sod. "On my travels I intend to eat nothing but honest-to-God, home-cooked diner chow," said Smith, if not quite with relish then at least a level of sardonic satisfaction. He has something of the Louis Theroux about him only, in this instance, it's hamburgers he's talking about, not crystal meth. He also says chow a lot. At least four times in the space of an hour. That's quite a lot, isn't it? Chow. As in, "cowboy chow". Or politicians on the election trail visiting diners to "negotiate chow." Chow. There we are, four in one paragraph.

Diners are welcoming places, contended Smith in America on a Plate: the Story of the Diner (BBC4). They're also lonely, sad, desperate, attracting drifters and loners long into the night, fireflies to their neon flames, strip-lit havens where stodgy comfort food is doled up in hefty portions with a side order of pathos. Few depictions capture that spirit quite so accurately as Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, a characteristically stylish depiction of a diner late at night, empty but for three customers and their white-hatted waiter. Smith tried to track down the Nighthawks diner, but to no avail.

Still, it's an interpretation repeated time and time again. The diner as a haven has permeated the work of Norman Rockwell, John Updike, and countless film directors over the decades. Smith interviewed Suzanne Vega, she of "Tom's Diner" fame. Rather awkwardly, he got her to sing to her hit back to him while sitting, sure enough, in the diner where it was written (Tom's Restaurant, as it happens). But the most interesting encounter of the trip, really, came when he met participants of the 1960s sit-ins that marked the Southern civil-rights movements. Deprived the right to sit down and eat at lunch counters across the South (but permitted to shop in the general stores to which they were often attached), African-Americans took to non-violent occupations, entering en masse and quietly sitting at the tables. More often than not, they were greeted with legalised violence by the waiting white men. But occasionally, just occasionally, they got to order a burger.

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