Diners are an integral part of the American landscape, as well as the American experience. Diners in their various forms have waxed and waned in their popularity over the past hundred plus years, and I like many others was swept up in the romance and glamour of them. The Hungry Moon was not a sleek silver diner, it was the ground floor of a wood framed three story building in Delaware County, New York, and it was mine for some years.
It seemed like a good idea at the time, is my only explanation. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, from the day to day operations of the business, to the town I lived in, and the challenges I would encounter. There are about one thousand stories I could tell, and at some point I will have told most of them, but I’ll start with the story of the grand opening.
Stamford, New York sits between Albany and Binghamton, in the Catskill Mountains. At the time I lived there, Delaware County was the most depressed county in New York, though Stamford, and nearby Oneonta had a lot to recommend them; I had friends who had a house nearby, and I could afford it. I was a good cook, had been working in a restaurant for over a year in Manhattan, and running a catering business for almost as long— it didn’t feel like it would be a problem that I had never worked as a short order cook, and in fact had never cooked an egg that wasn’t scrambled or hard boiled, in short, I was exhibiting some very poor judgment. As we were doing preparations for the opening my friend Natalie who was there to help out asked me why I was nervous, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ she asked. ‘Someone could get sick and die’ was my reply. ‘Wow’ said Nat, ‘I hadn’t considered that, that would really suck’. Indeed! Happily, to my knowledge I neither killed anyone nor even made them ill.
Opening day arrived, and in those seven hours were some of the most challenging moments of my life in Stamford. The place had been closed for a week while we did some work on it, and people had gotten pretty angry about that. Stamford was home to two diners, and people went to one or the other; a kind of Hatfield/McCoy situation and by closing one life was disrupted for everyone. This became clear to me over the course of that week as regulars to the Stamford Café (as it had been know) came by not to wish us luck, but to let me know their expectations and demands, scold, berate, and even yell at us about how much we were inconveniencing them. We were off to a great start!
It turned out the one of the main functions we’d serve was to hold newspapers for our patrons. Papers were delivered daily, and we would write names on the papers, and put them in a specific order on a rack, and people (mostly men) would stop by to have a cup of coffee for 25¢, gossip, and pick up their paper. Sunday was a really big day for paper pick up. Many more people got Sunday papers than the dailies, and I had to put them together as part of preparing them for sale. This had to be done before opening as there really wasn’t room to do it once we opened, and needed the tables. Like everything else, I learned to get this done pretty efficiently, but not that first day…
Our hours were 7:00-2:00, and from 7:00-7:30 on the weekends it was mostly the men coming for their papers and coffee. By 8:00 opening day however we were full—every seat taken, orders coming in faster than I was prepared for, and no end in sight. The orders were written on those iconic green two-copy slips, and laid on the counter beside the griddle. I was cooking right behind the counter, in full view of anyone in the front room. The whole place seated fifty including the counter, which is small for a diner, but that day felt like it sat one hundred! The orders stretched out and I was already regretting my menu format—a list of possible omelet filling choices—choose any three with add-ons at an addition cost. Holy crap, in one order I’d have one omelet with ham, cheese, mushroom and onions, one with ham, peppers, and tomatoes, one with bacon, cheese, and peppers, and one with everything, which I can’t recall precisely, but was something like ten fillings, and six more slips behind with equally confusing combinations. I was also floored by the quantity of food people were ordering- pancakes and bacon with an omelet including home fries and toast on the side! My adrenaline was pumping, and we were so busy I felt sure we would be successful, and everyone was feeling the festive vibe.
For the next four years some of the guys who’d been there to watch that first day continued to tease me about how crazed I’d looked, and how backed up I gotten, and also to nod and say I’d come a long way since then. In my entire life, I’ve never done the kind of multi-tasking and juggling I learned to do cooking at the Hungry Moon. By the end of that first day I had, by necessity, come up with some systems, and efficiencies that I continued to develop. It became fun, it didn’t take me long to be able to engage in lively banter while making omelets, pancakes, burgers and sandwiches all at the same time. Like anything you get proficient at, it was fun, and a busy breakfast was a mental rush for me. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do it now; it was tough work.
During the time I owned the diner I met some of the most interesting people I’ve met in my life. I knew farmers and artists, mechanics and film directors. Living in a small town, in a rural area gives you access to everyone! I got to meet and know people I never would have crossed paths with in NYC. A small town is a distillation of everything you find in a big city, but with fewer different social barriers, and a smaller population you encounter the whole of it. I learned so much living in Stamford, about the world and human nature and myself. I saw up close the truly terrible and the simply amazing things humans are capable of.