That’s right — a knife and fork. De Blasio went to a well-known Staten Island pizzeria for a sit-down meal, started strong by ordering a sausage and smoked mozzarella pie, and then botched it by carving up his slice with a knife and spearing each piece with a fork. New Yorkers went bonkers, and the media wondered aloud whether de Blasio had lost some of his street cred as a result. For a guy who has presented himself as a two-fisted fighter for the little guy, eating pizza with a knife and fork seems awfully . . . prissy. It’s the sort of thing your great-aunt Gertrude might do with a look of stern disapproval on her face.
De Blasio defended his blunder by saying that in his “ancestral homeland” — his mother is Italian — people eat pizza with a knife and fork. Please! Everyone knows that pizza in its modern form is an American invention, and the American way of eating it is to grab a slice by hand and gobble it down. You end up with fingers that are covered in a greasy orange glaze, a mound of wadded napkins also stained orange, and a contented look on your face for having enjoyed the complete pizza experience. Eating pizza with a knife and fork is not only vaguely insulting, it also misses out on half the fun.
Good Lord! Does de Blasio use a knife and fork to eat a New York dirty water hot dog, or a doughnut? Imagine a Chicago pol using utensils to eat a dripping Italian beef sandwich, or the mayor of the City of Brotherly Love using a fork to finish off a Philly cheesesteak, or Memphis’ mayor using a knife and fork to eat a mound of ribs. It’s unthinkable!
I first went to the Chef-O-Nette in the early ’70s, right after our family first moved to Upper Arlington. It looked pretty much the same as it does now, with the ’50s lighting fixtures and the bolted down, rotating stools and the sunburst clock. I’m guessing that the look of the place in the early ’70s was pretty much the same as it looked when it first opened in 1955, and established itself as the anchor at one end of the Tremont Shopping Center. It hasn’t changed, and no one really wants it to change.
The menu hasn’t changed much, either, in the 40 years since I first visited the Chef-O-Nette. That’s a good thing, too. There are still the same burgers and diner food and milkshakes and french fries and hangover sandwich. For all I know, it also may have the same ageless waitresses who first served me when I was a student at Upper Arlington High School, 40 years ago.
The Chef-O-Nette is one of those places that make a suburb into a community. You see the same people there, and that’s a comfortable feeling. It’s a good place to meet a friend for a cup of coffee or to have some hot chocolate after sledding at the OSU golf course. When Richard and Kish and I went there for lunch yesterday, it was like slipping on an old slipper that fits like a glove.
It’s about dinner time, and I’ve got a deep, gnawing desire for some diner food.
Give me a place where I can sit at a counter on a bolted down stool that spins. Give me some kitschy decor, an old Coke sign, and a large guy flipping burgers on a grille. Give me the smell of french fries snapping and crackling in a deep fryer. Give me a joint with a blue plate special, meat loaf and mashed potatoes and brown gravy on the daily menu, and fresh-baked pies on display in a circular glass case. Give me a nylon-uniformed waitress named Madge, or Gladys, or Bunny who calls me “Hon” and maybe snaps her gum, besides.
They call diner food comfort food, and that’s exactly what it is. Sometimes you have a hankering that only a piece of Swiss steak, some mac and cheese, a piece of coconut cream pie, and a hot cup of black coffee can satisfy.
Let’s say you are 10 years old on a cold winter’s day. For hours, you’ve been sledding with your brother and your friends in the neighborhood. Your stocking cap is soaked with sweat and a while ago one of your friends put snow down your back that has long since turned to an ever-present, icy wetness. Then you hear the dinner bell your Mom rang to call the kids in your family to dinner. You grab the rope to your Flexible Flyer and start the long trudge home, pulling the sled behind you. And as you walk, you start to think about what your Mom might be serving for dinner and begin hoping that it will be your favorite winter meal.
In my case, the favorite winter meal was tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. The tomato soup was Campbell’s, of course, and made with “whole milk.” (I’m not even sure they had skim milk or 2% milk or the other milk options in those days.) The soup was served piping hot with lots of crumbled saltine crackers to make it even more fortifying. The sandwiches were made with Kraft American cheese on Wonder bread that was lightly buttered on the outside then grilled so that the bread was browned and crunchy and the cheese was perfectly melted and oozed when you took your first bite. The sandwiches were served hot and were cut diagonally, the better to facilitate dipping the sandwich into the steaming soup. Mom would call it a “nourishing meal.” I just thought it tasted great. This was a meal that never disappointed!
Last night we had tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, and the meal is still as good as I remember it. There were some differences, of course. We don’t buy “whole milk” anymore, so the soup was made with 2% milk, and I haven’t eaten Wonder Bread in decades, so the sandwiches were made with whole wheat bread. But the soup was still Campbell’s, and it tasted as rich and warming and creamy as ever. The toasted and grilled sandwiches still had the satisfying crunch and the melty goodness, and sinking part of the sandwich into the soup and taking a bite still yielded one of the the greatest taste combinations ever.
In my book, this is the definitive winter comfort food meal.
As usual, I ate too much on Thanksgiving. As I sat, groaning and belt loosened, on the sofa, I also realized that– among my many other significant personal issues — I am helpless in the presence of pumpkin pie.
Usually my self-discipline when it comes to food is pretty strong. I’m not much of a snacker. Typically, I eat a satisfying meal and I am done until the time for the next meal has come. There are certain foods, however, that completely overwhelm my feeble resistance, and pumpkin pie is one of them. If it is in the house, I am going to eat it, no matter how uncomfortably full I am and how embarrassed I am at my cursed weakness.
Why is this? Is it the firm yet squishy, mildly spicy goodness of the filling? Is it the crisp, flaky exposed crust, or the moist, chewy crust under the filling? Is it the delicate dollop of whipped cream framed against the brown skin of the wedge of pie? Or is it that, deep down, the familiar taste of pumpkin pie brings back warm memories of childhood, of eating pumpkin pie for dessert at gatherings of extended family on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other occasions — and then sneaking an extra piece late at night, when no one is looking?
Whatever the reason, the piece of pumpkin pie is like the Borg, and I am about to be assimilated. Resistance is futile!