Now that summer is upon us, many people will hit the road across the country for vacations. Roadside diners are a part of road trips on America’s highway heritage. The diner dates back to 1872 when a Providence, Rhode Island entrepreneur named Walter Scott hitched a horse to a small cart and began selling sandwiches, pies, and good hot coffee to hungry night-shift workers. It was the first portable restaurant in the country. Later in 1887, a Worcester Massachusetts bartender named Sam Jones improved on Scott’s concept by introducing the first sit-down diner. It was a lunch wagon, but had an eating counter, stools, and a complete kitchen. As the businesses grew and people loved the food, many people complained of the unsightly carts. In the early 1900’s a manufacturer named Patrick Tierney designed a sleek, prefabricated dining structure that was long and narrow, not unlike a railroad car. Tierney’s diners had shiny tile floors, shiny metal dining counters, indoor bathrooms, and separate booths besides the dining stools. His design became the model for how we think of diners today.
Most people can recall a diner experience somewhere in our country. It’s a cultural institution, made even more popular with great cookbooks such as this one, and television shows like Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-In’s and Dives.” You will find diners in movies and television shows such as American Graffiti, Diner, Frankie and Johnny, Pleasantville, Happy Days, and Alice. The popularity of the diner is due in part to its friendly atmosphere and home-style food that tastes great, affordable, and filling. For meals, you usually find burgers, sandwiches, hash browns, meatloaf, egg dishes, or macaroni and cheese. But desserts are where diners shine – especially the pies! Desserts at a diner hardly ever have fussy or haute cuisine. Instead you will find cakes, pies, cheesecakes, cookies, puddings, and ice cream. There is no skimping on eggs, butter, or cream. And what is pie unless it is a la mode?
The recipes are for some of the best diner desserts you will find anywhere. Pies such as lattice-top cherry, apple with a cheddar crust, sky-high lemon meringue, sweet potato, chocolate cream, and coconut cream are just a few. Enjoy cakes such as chocolate, carrot, Boston cream, coconut, jelly rolls, and German chocolate. Soda fountain treats to delight the kids include root beer floats, double-chocolate milk shakes, hot fudge sundaes, and banana splits. Puddings are popular fare at diners with tapioca, chocolate malt, butterscotch, banana, and rum raisin. Cheesecake, cookies, cobblers, and brownies are too numerous the mention. And not to forget doughnuts or pastries, try blueberry muffins, powdered sugar doughnuts, raspberry twists, turnovers, and crumb cakes. When taking family road trips when I was young, I couldn’t wait to try some of these desserts, but just as much fun was picking out the songs to play on the table juke boxes. I think I loved those as much as the food.
If you are embarking on a road trip this summer, be sure to find a diner and indulge a little on their great desserts. And while you are at it, put in a quarter and find some old Four Seasons songs, or Chubby Checker, or Brenda Lee, or Elvis. A slice of pie a la mode will taste even better with the songs playing – I promise!