WHETHER we're drunk, sober or plain old hung over, the classic diner provides us with some of our most familiar and rejuvenating comforts: a cushy vinyl booth, a swivelly stool, a strong mug of coffee, a hot and homey plate served by a funny lady with the same name as your grandma. But, according to one local professor, these restaurants are more than just a place to plop down and unplug. They're a conduit through which we can burrow into American culture like a crumb-topped blueberry muffin - baked on the premises, of course.
Is your Western omelet, turkey club and chicken-croquette special ready for its high-minded academic close-up?
Dr. Francis Ryan, director of the American Studies program at La Salle University, selected a distinct focus for his capstone seminar class this spring: our country's edible heritage, "from the Puritans to the present."
Students, most of whom are elementary- and special-education majors, analyze poetry, literature and visual arts pertaining to American food and drink. They pore over 50 to 100 pages of selected readings a week to produce "critical commentaries," or opinion papers. And they're required to produce a 20-page, course-ending research paper that counts for half their grade.
"This is not a fun and games course. It is fun, but it's very academic," said Ryan, who has a reputation for high standards that's well-earned: I took his intro course as a student at La Salle and didn't do so hot.
There's ample fieldwork, too. After analyzing excerpts from Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, Dr. Ryan took students to a Dietz & Watson facility in Northeast Philly to observe modern meat processing. They recently visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art to take in a foodcentric exhibit. And then there's the recent project, which required students to visit a Philly diner to perform painstaking ethnographic research.
"It's definitely not a 'sit and listen' class," said junior education major Rebecca Langlais, of Oxford Circle.
The diner, dissected
Ryan's diner unit began with his students digesting two readings - Andrew Hurley's "From Hash House to Family Restaurant: The Transformation of the Diner and Post-World War II Consumer Culture," which was published in The Journal of American History and analyzes how the restaurants evolved from working-class, male-dominated sit-downs to inclusive, female- and kid-friendly attractions; and John Jakle's "Roadside Restaurants and Place-Product-Packaging," from the Journal of Cultural Geography, which discusses the diner's close association with automotive culture, and how the restaurants laid the groundwork for the success of modern chains.
"Once you read these essays, you can never go into a diner ever again the same way," said Ryan, a Kensington native who, as a teen, took dates to the fondly remembered Harvey House, on South Broad Street. (He doesn't identify himself as a "big diner guy," despite his academic interest in them.) "You start looking at everything - architecture, how the booths are constructed, how things are dispensed, where the waitresses are."
Ryan's students were tasked with taking the core concepts of these essays and applying them in real time at any of several well-known Philly diners, including Mayfair Diner, Country Club and Dining Car, in Northeast Philly; the Melrose and the Oregon, in South Philly; and the Trolley Car, in Mount Airy, close to La Salle's campus.
Students, who wrote a paper and delivered an oral presentation on their diner findings, were all struck by the sharp contrast between the venues described in Hurley's essay and the diners of today.
"The [original] diner was primarily for blue-collar workers," said Ryan. "Guys were cursing. It was dirty. But they eventually grew to lure not just women, but families."
Amy Nash, a junior education major from Trumbull, Conn., visited the Dining Car, on Frankford Avenue. "I thought it was going to be a regular, run-of-the-mill diner, but it definitely had many contemporary elements," she said.
That feel extended from the atmosphere - "very nicely decorated, not over the top" - and the waitstaff (she had a male server) to the food and drink options. There were plenty of health-conscious dishes, plus a full beer, wine and liquor selection, which most diners in her hometown don't offer.
"And scrapple," she added. "They definitely do not have that where I'm from."
Junior Mercede Burger, from Bethlehem, also noted the full bar available at Germantown Avenue's '50s-themed Trolley Car. "Diners never used to sell alcohol - that was the job of a saloon," she said. "It reflects how alcohol is such a big part of American culture."
Her pick, more so than other options on the list, reflected a wide clientele - a far-ranging mix of races and ages, all breaking bread in the same dining room.
"When the population changes, the diner needs to accommodate this population change," she observed.
That willingness to accommodate also applied to the Trolley Car's huge menu. "There's stuff for college kids - I'm going to refer to it as 'hangover food' - but they have a lot of traditional meals, too," said Burger, who noted the milkshake selection, with options named after icons like Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. "Things to accommodate a lot of different generations."
Like her professor, elementary-education major Maria Phillips doesn't consider herself much of a short-order connoisseur, despite having parents she described as "diner fanatics." But Ryan's class has permanently shaped how the Abington native interprets the diner experience, in Philly and beyond.
"I'm going to become the biggest critic," she said. "Normally, I would just go in to eat and then I'd leave. Now, I'm going to be looking at all the small things."
Drew Lazor has been writing about the local food scene since 2005. His twice-monthly column focuses on unexpected people doing unexpected things in Philadelphia food. If you come across a chef, restaurant, dish or food-related topic that bears investigation, contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @drewlazor.