The Econ of Eating

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I recently reconnected with the editor of my high school newspaper when I discovered that he has been attending FreedomFest for several years. A former bureau chief for Forbes, he is now retired in the northern California town where we attended high school and writes a weekly column as a restaurant critic. I’ve enjoyed reading his reviews. They tend to focus as much on the restaurateur as on the food, and they are always kind and encouraging to entrepreneurs. Just for fun, I decided to mimic his formula and write a restaurant review of my own. Those who frequent New York diners will feel right at home in my review, if not in my specific diner.

Every Monday and Wednesday I drive up the river to Ossining where I park my car in an upper lot and hike down 122 uneven stone steps (yes, I’ve counted them) to Sing Sing, the notorious maximum security prison where I teach college and pre-college courses to the inmates. I check in at noon for my 1:00–3:00 class, hike back up to the lot for my two-hour break, and then return at 5:30 for my 6:30–8:30 class. The hardest part of teaching at Sing Sing isn’t dealing with the security guards, or the stairs, or the oppressive heat from the radiators, or the faint odor of mold that permeates the air and clings to the students’ papers. It’s figuring out where to eat between classes.

“How can they offer so many choices?” you might ask. It’s simple: most of the food is exactly the same, with a variation on the sauce.

Ossining is a small village on the Hudson River, and dining options are limited. It has several convenience-store delis, a couple of Chinese takeouts, a few nice restaurants that don’t open until dinner time, a McDonald’s, and a diner. I usually opt for one of the latter two for my afternoon break, since those are the only places that offer seating.

At least once a week I select the Landmark Diner, so named because it has been a landmark in Ossining for over half a century. Most New York diners are owned by Greek families that immigrated to America shortly after World War II. The Landmark's story may be the same. What I know is that the owner — let’s call him Themi Papadopoulos — recognizes me and shows me to a booth in a corner where I can eat my solitary meal and grade papers until class time. The restaurant is slow between 3:30 and 5:30, so he doesn’t mind my taking up the booth. And I always purchase a full meal.

Like most New York diners, the Landmark sports a menu at least 25 pages long, including four pages of breakfast plates, eight kinds of burgers, a dozen styles of chicken breast, another dozen fish options, at least 20 pastas, plus soups, salads, and steaks. “How can they offer so many choices?” you might ask. It’s simple: most of the food is exactly the same, with a variation on the sauce. And most of it seems to be pre-cooked. The only difference between chicken piccata and chicken marsala is the jar the sauce comes out of. Your best bet at a diner is either bacon and eggs or a hamburger and a milkshake. It’s the only food that tastes fresh. And it’s usually pretty tasty.

Apparently the “special” had been cooked previously, frozen or refrigerated until needed, and then dipped into the deep fryer to give it that crispy, just-browned appearance.

This week, after showing me to my booth, Themi told me about the day’s specials — pasta primavera, braised salmon, and a half roasted chicken. Tired of my usual hamburger patty, and thinking the specials would actually be fresh, I chose the half roasted chicken. But first, wanting to make sure my selection would be half a chicken and not half-roasted, I asked him if the specials were already available, so early in the afternoon. “Of course!” he assured me.

Platters are huge at New York diners, harking back to the days in the old country when family members labored long in the vineyards or marble quarries and needed a hearty meal. The specials come with soup or salad, bread, potato, and vegetable. That day’s vegetable was red cabbage, another staple at Greek diners. Braised in vinegar, it has a sweet, tangy flavor that complements chicken or pork nicely. Of course, the flavor pairings are more successful when the vegetables are served along with the meat rather than between the salad and the main course, as mine were. Still, the delay of that course boded well for a thoroughly well roasted chicken, so I didn’t complain about my side dishes not being on the side of anything.

When my chicken arrived it was huge, almost the size of a capon, and the outer skin was brown and crisp, adding to my expectation of a succulent, moist, well-roasted meat. Alas, it was not so. The meat was hard and dry, with that unmistakable gaminess that happens after the Thanksgiving turkey has rested in the refrigerator overnight. Apparently the “special” had been cooked previously, frozen or refrigerated until needed, and then dipped into the deep fryer to give it that crispy, just-browned appearance. I should have remembered that diners don’t roast anything.

I moved my chicken plate to the edge of the table and continued to nibble at my potatoes and cabbage until it was time to return to the uneven staircase at Sing Sing. As I was paying, the cashier asked how my food was.

At Sing Sing my students have only two choices: eat it or leave it. In the free market, I can choose from a multitude of eateries.

“Since you asked, the chicken was a little overcooked,” I acknowledged helpfully.

“Did you eat it? Would you like something else?” she asked.

“No, I didn’t eat it, but the rest of the food was fine. I don’t need anything else,” I insisted, not wanting to look like one of those people who try to get a free meal.

Themi walked over and apologized. “She’s a regular customer,” he said to the cashier. “Take 10% off the bill."

What a bargain! With tax and tip I paid $24.00 for a side salad, a scoop of potatoes and a scoop of cabbage. Yet I knew that the offer of a free meal was sincere. At Sing Sing my students have only two choices: eat it or leave it. In the free market, I can choose from a multitude of eateries. The successful restaurateurs are those who keep their customers satisfied.

It was a bargain because I didn’t come in for a great meal. We don’t go to diners for great food. We go for the familiarity of that 25-page menu. For the familial welcome of the owners. For the quiet table where we won’t be rushed out. And because all of those desires were satisfied, there was no reason for me to ask for a refund. I received what I came for.

I’ll be at the Landmark again next week. It will always beat standing at the deli.




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