The waitress was big, and looked scary. My partner, Bill, started ordering, but she told him to “shut up”, stared at me, and barked: “I’ll have your order first, Toots.”
Spotting the twinkle in her eye, I realized it was an act to make us smile. She was efficient as well as fun, delivering every dish cooked to our specifications. Afterwards as I thanked her, she slipped her business card into my hand. She was an actress. Only in LA would a waitress give you her card.
There’s often something really restorative about American breakfast places with their comfort food and maternal waitresses. A group of us go to a different one once a week and we rate our meal largely on whether our requests for how we want food cooked have been listened to.
When I am in London a friend buys me lunch at his club. He urges me to ask exactly how I want my food done. “A club should be a home from home where you get food as you like it,” he says. Here you get that in a humble diner.
It’s a far cry from my poor and somewhat odd childhood near Leeds where “me mam” sent me to school fuelled up with “bacon dip” – bread soaked in still-warm leftover fried bacon fat, a solitary Farley’s Rusk disintegrating nicely under boiled milk with the odd displeasing lump, or occasionally “pobs” – boiled milk poured over on-the-verge of stale bread, sprinkled with sugar.
And customers here would be gobsmacked to hear about the Bradford cafe I flung myself into a few years ago when gagging for a drink. I asked for black coffee. “Sorry luv,” said the waitress. “We only make it with milk.”
Being vegetarian, I ask a few standard questions. “Do you use lard?” “Is there chicken powder in the seasoning?” And: “Do you make the hash browns from scratch?” I started asking the latter when I discovered that these fried and shredded potatoes I adore were sometimes brought in partly cooked, brushed with pork fat, or flavoured with beef.
Interrogation over, my friends relieved, I go on to specifics. Toast dry and well done. I emphasise the latter since toast usually arrives anemic. Bill says it’s because Latinos who are the cooks in many kitchens are not into toast. We’ve yet to hit on the words to ensure the right colour. We’ve asked for it brown, and got brown bread. On a friend’s advice we’ve asked for it twice toasted: we ended up with two portions.
Barbara likes her bacon crispy and if it arrives as ordered, she holds it up horizontally in triumph. Her partner Bobb is generally happy if she’s happy, but he gets crabby if coffee refills are slow – here you can usually get as much coffee as you can drink, for the price of the first mug.
Many breakfast places in Southern California not only have typical American food, but also Mexican dishes. Bill scans the menu for the two temptations he can never say no to, Eggs Incognito and Huevos Rancheros. Eggs Incognito is the perfect name for scrambled eggs smothered in so much chilli and cheese you can barely see them.
Huevos Rancheros is the mid-morning meal Mexicans traditionally eat on ranches – fried eggs on lightly fried flatbreads called tortillas, topped with a tomato-chilli sauce, refried beans, rice, avocado, and, of course, cheese, which gets everywhere. If these dishes are not there, Bill goes for healthier oatmeal, porridge to us. He prefers it made with water, not milk, with cinnamon and raisins, but no sugar.
Pat & Lorraine’s family-run diner in Eagle Rock serves one of Edgar’s favourites – biscuits and gravy, a sort of savoury flakey scone, slathered in creamy white sauce. To me it looks like cauliflower cheese. This diner was used for the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, and I’ve sat at the table where the gangsters debated Madonna’s Like A Virgin and tipping. Our favourite waitress, new on the job when it was filmed, applauds the scene’s pro-tipping message. I agree. With demanding customers like us to put up with, she and her ilk deserve every cent.
To order breakfast in the US, Brits have to master Egg lingo, a language that is hard to crack, pun intended. “Over easy” means fried both sides, but still with a runny yoke. “Over” refers to the flipping and “easy” to the yolk’s “doneness”. You can also have eggs “over medium” and “over hard.” “Sunnyside up” means the egg is fried on one side and looks like the sun.
Getting soft-boiled eggs is, er, hard. One US friend thought slicing off the top of an egg with a knife and dipping bread soldiers into the yolk sounded “neat”, but didn’t like the idea of shell splinters in his mouth.
Our egg cups had not made the move from London, so when a British guest wanted boiled eggs for breakfasts at home I went in search of some. It was more exhausting than the average Easter egg hunt. Store after store had never heard of them. I was reduced to miming in the aisles, slicing the top off an egg with an imaginary knife and scooping out the contents with an imaginary spoon. When I found some in LA I felt I’d successfully panned for gold
But here, every day is pancake day. Pancakes, aka hotcakes, aka stacks, are often served with bacon and eggs and syrup. I like them with a touch of syrup, preferably warmed, plus lemon – the latter is thought eccentric. And no matter how often you wash your hands, the sweet smell lingers on your fingers all day. But they are filling. I’ve been known to slip one into my handbag, for later, minus the syrup.
As a child growing up in a Yorkshire village, journalist Lynne Bateson rarely went to the city of Leeds just a few miles away, but she dreamed of living in the US. She made it. Here she recounts her adventures, taking a down-to-earth look at life Stateside.