Once again, I’m the last the to know; this song was released eight years ago, I must have been dozing. Here’s my new Vimeo favorite, “The General Specific”, Band of Horses. It has nothing to do with my story.
Our ears tingled and our noses pinked as we crunched our way along the dimly-lit streets looking for a warm spot to eat. We had been cocooned in uncomfortable Amtrak seats (with occasional visits to the diner and observation cars) for two days and two very long nights and we felt giddy with our new freedom. We got off the train in Minneapolis/St. Paul, our first stop since leaving Seattle, and were switching to a Greyhound bus for a side trip to Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
Down the block we could see the glow of a diner, apparently positioned by Edward Hopper. But it wasn’t Phillies, Greenwich Village in 1943; it was Mickey’s, downtown St. Paul in 1989 and it was a welcome sight. The bus didn’t leave until 5:00 a.m., so we had six hours to kill.
Mickey’s hasn’t locked its doors since opening day. It serves traditionally greasy, all-day-breakfast/hamburger/fries/malt fare to locals, eccentrics, down-and-outs, and late-night revelers walking to avoid another DUI. A locavore, vegan, or someone with nut allergies would not survive the scorn of the surly waitress. You don’t go to a diner expecting anything other than a diner experience.
On a sunny Northwestern spring afternoon last week, I walked down the block from our hotel to the Stardust Diner. All the details were there: shiny jukebox, marbleized vinyl stools, and plenty of chrome. My burger was good, had a decent drip factor, and the side of tater tots was genius. What the Stardust lacks is a soul, it seems like the Las Vegas concept of Paris or the Disneyfied representation of a pirate. Why was the waitress so nice? Where were the scruffy locals? Where was the man sleeping in his plate of home fries? Why does the diner close at 9:00 pm? Why weren’t my fingers greasy?
The Stardust Diner had none of the mystery, romance, or danger of Mickey’s, but once again, maybe I’m trying to recreate an unreachable point in time. I needed the slightly harrowing dark, foggy, neighborhood, the relief we felt when we saw life within a reachable distance, the bliss of instant warmth as we left the frozen outside and entered the warm, steamy diner. A good meal includes so much more than just good food.
Here’s a tater tot casserole worth of any Lutheran church basement potluck.
- 1 pound ground beef
- 1 onion, chopped
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1/2 (32 ounce) package tater tots
- 1 cup frozen vegetables
- 1 (10.75 ounce) can condensed cream of mushroom soup
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1 1/2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese
- If you’re fancy, add Worcestershire sauce, Sriracha, or truffles
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, brown the ground beef with the onions. Drain excess fat, and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Spread the beef mixture evenly over the bottom of a 2 quart casserole dish. Arrange tater tots evenly over beef layer.
In a small bowl, stir the soup into the milk until smooth; pour over tater tot and beef layers.
Sprinkle Cheddar cheese evenly over the top.
Bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes, until cheese is bubbly and slightly brown.