"And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me, . . . the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, spring into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea."
-Proust, Remembrances of Things Past
As Proust tasted the cookie, it triggered a vivid recollection of his visit to a French town in his childhood. A similar experience is triggered each time I eat a pizza burger. As an impressionable young teenager, I visited a small town in New Jersey. I ate lunch in a diner, and it was there that I tasted my first pizza burger -- a burger with tomato sauce and melted mozzarella. Now, whenever I find a pizza burger and take a bite, I am transported back to that little diner in New Jersey and the whole essence of that moment in New Jersey floods into my being. Or at least it would if I were Proust.
As far as I know, we have no pizza burgers in Houston. We also have no real diners -- or at least no diners of the type you would find in New York and New Jersey. Sure, we have 59 Diner, House of Pies, and Biba's Ones-A-Meal -- all 24 hour restaurants that have a diner-like quality. But the food in these restaurants is much more like a southern cafe -- grits, biscuits, huevos rancheros, pecan pie. Only Biba's, with its Greek and Italian items, seems to come close. But even Biba's does not have pizza burgers.
New Jersey is the epicenter of diner culture. Wikipedia says that one third of all diners in the world are in New Jersey. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diner. Wikipedia also tries to define the diner in terms of architecture. Sure, the prefab buildings can be a part of the diner experience. But the building is not essential to the experience of true diner cuisine.
What is true diner cuisine? I cannot offer a precise definition. But I can make an impressionistic stab: Diners tend to serve proto-fast food -- lots of burgers, pizza, Greek sandwiches. This food is prepared quickly, but not prefabbed like McDonald's. Diners often have large menus with many choices. You can choose a sandwich, soup, salad, a dinner plate, or breakfast 24 hours. And diners serve a lot of coffee.
Big Nick's Burger and Pizza Joint, on 77th and Broadway, is much closer to diner food than anything in Houston. Although it is not in a prefab building, the restaurant is long and narrow, giving it a diner-like effect. The walls are covered with press clippings and autographed photos from famous and not-so-famous guests. The 14-page menu is so long that it has a table of contents. You can order almost any standard American-Greek or American-Italian dish that you can imagine, plus dozens of kinds of pizzas, burgers, salads, and breakfast foods.
As I studied the menu, I considered ordering a pizza burger. I realized, though, that I had progressed beyond the diner food of my childhood. I needed something more sophisticated. So I ordered the Spanish burger. It was a big, greasy burger covered with olive tapenade. The dish was not a culinary breakthrough. But somehow the food captured the place, the surroundings, the moment. It was a dish that I cannot imagine eating and appreciating in quite the same way as in Houston.
The cultural context is crucial to our appreciation of food. Food is culture. Food is a language. The experience of eating food is as much a function of the time and place as its texture and spices. Food is never objectively good or bad. It is a product of whatever habits, opinions, and experiences we bring to the table.
I highly recommend Big Nick's. You can order almost anything you want. The prices, for Manhattan, are remarkably cheap. The atmosphere is funky. They make a mean Spanish burger. And there is nothing quite like it in Houston.