Two skinny cooks, backwards baseball caps and shriveled biceps, split buttermilk biscuits, fry them on the flattop, and slop them on fake china. Thick glutinous gravy ladled over biscuits: medicinal when taken beyond the brunch hour. Nevermind the inch of snow shutting down St. Louis County—I hunkered down in the Olivette Diner, drinking coffee, eating fatty ham, safe from white collar traffic. My biscuits cost three dollars, a cheap prescription for comfort. A perceptible layer of grease coats everything in the diner, from teal vinyl seats to the saltshakers. Once called the Riteway, “the Diner”—as I have always known it—lays a small claim on history. Head East, “the Midwest’s Legendary Classic Rock Band,” photographed the back cover of Flat as a Pancake behind the counter. The album’s front, of course, depicts a beautifully browned pancake complete with melting butter pat and maple syrup. I wolfed down BLTs three decades after the diner’s Riteway days, but the menus, manual cash register, and malteds cling to past allure—not during long thin days (of construction workers eating hash and lonely business lunches), but at night, hot September nights after soccer games in the park, after the roar of mosquitos drowned out sneakers scuffling on dry grass.
When I was a kid, the diner kept an Asteroids machine in the back corner. We purchased the game and brought it home. For three years, I held the top scores (“JEB”), ruling my very own $300 basement arcade. After the machine broke, we moved it to the garage. Some months later, it disappeared.
The diner is good because it is cheap; that is, if it was any more expensive, it would be an undisputed culinary failure. For instance, my gelatinous white peppered gravy would taste terrible just a buck higher. Hovering around three-ish, however, it succeeds. It fills my stomach, coats my mouth with industrial emulsifiers, plays a nice counterpoint to thin bitter coffee; it is a smirking rejoinder to every artisanal imitation.
In Saul Bellow’s novel Herzog, there’s an instructive discussion of fancy comfort food:
“Do you know what you pay for one serving for spaghetti al burro at Macario’s? Guess.”
I must go along, Herzog reflected. He rubbed his brows with thumb and forefinger. “Three-fifty?”
“Is that your idea of expensive? Five dollars and fifty cents!”
“My God, what do they put in it?”
“Sprinkled with gold dust, not cheese.”
Do you know what you pay for biscuits and gravy at Peels, a so-called “regional American restaurant,” a Manhattan media darling, a generic regurgitation of nostalgia? $12. Where cheap implies impoverished ethics or aesthetics, expensive insinuates moral responsibility, general fineness, epicurean delicacy, and an appropriation of red state aesthetics by blue state politics. There is a necessary flipside: cheap also signifies authenticity, kitsch and/or camp, pulpiness, and a realness that supersedes bourgeois daydreams. Associating the cheap with realer realities invites the ouroboros, though—any really real reality, rescued from a pile of picked-over junk, becomes yet another fantasy. “Cheap eats” feel realer than their riche cousins because they shoulder lesser aesthetic expectations and enunciate their ideologies in less uncertain terms. Although simulations often threaten to overtake the original artifact—Peels’ biscuit and gravy substituting for the diner’s—a universe of untouched experience remains hidden beneath everyday existence. Or, we can still elect to eat cheap biscuits without pretenses. Choose to identify the glimmer of real life underneath the gravy. Accept the forkful as an indivisible element, containing a complete and undeconstructable trace of meaning.
During Herzog’s visit to New York, he emerges from the subway and surveys the street.
An escaped balloon was fleeing like a sperm, black and quick into the orange dust of the west.
Despite its plethora of interpretable meaning, this and every sentence in Herzog encourages a more sensual approach. The novel—and Bellow’s style—seduces the reader into savoring fragments of language, rolling words about and around the tongue like wine. I want to absorb the sentence’s perfume and breathe it through my nostrils; allow the images to evaporate inside my closed mouth; swallow only after lingering harmonies complete their resonations. Bellow weaves a rich and knotty tapestry, one that begs hands for the feeling, fingers for the exploring, edges of nails for the picking. In its plush piles, I would rather luxuriate than unravel. Like a cheap plate of biscuits and gravy, it is best considered as a collection of many beautiful bites, not a complex and pathological body wanting dissection and diagnosis.