A European’s guide to podunk American café dining

If you’re from Europe (including the UK; if Cuba counts as Latin American, you count as European), and you visit the United States as it was meant to be visited, you will drive across some emptinesses. You will get hungry, and there won’t be many restaurants. While passing through Marmot Creek, West Dakota or Beauregard, East Carolina, you will get hungry enough to stop and eat in a podunk (small-town) café.

Americans will tell you, over and over, that podunk little diners are always the best places to eat. It’s not true. Some of them are great, some are all right, and some need to be closed down–and probably would be, if there were anywhere else in town to eat, and if small-county administrations and health departments weren’t so corrupt in general. Most podunk diners have kind, friendly people and decent food, but some have surly crabby types and haphazard food. I grew up in Kansas and have traveled by road around a lot of the country, so I have visited many such places. I’m here to help you have a good experience.

To have a good experience, you’re going to have to get over some things that may be quite alien to you, but don’t affect you too much. Let’s make a list:

  • The likelihood that some of the patrons are armed. With live ammunition–stuff that would get you arrested at once at home, and sent to counseling or something. Many of us are used to it, but I understand you probably aren’t.
  • The near-certainty that no one in the cafe speaks your native language (including British English), can name your country’s leader, or could even find the nation on a globe. (Don’t feel bad; they don’t speak their own native language well, they can’t name their Congressthief, and they would be hard pressed to find their own nation’s capital on a globe. If we can’t be multilingual, we can be multi-ignorant.)
  • Belying the stereotype of us as loud, vapid grinners, in some parts of the country no one is smiling like an imbecile, nor raising their voice. We act worse abroad than at home. This may mess with your perceptions.
  • A lot of the food is fried, and definitely would not get your cardiologist’s seal of approval. You should brace for a crise de foie.
  • To them, football is played by people wearing helmets who want to crush each other; far as they’re concerned, the version where you can’t touch the ball with your hands is for people afraid of properly violent combat.
  • In most cases, you stand out as if covered in neon lights proclaiming your Euroness, so expect to be noticed even before you say anything. That’s okay. What matters is what you do with it.
  • Nothing is, or will be, the way you are used to it. More to the point, the phrase “it should be this way” is fruitless. In fact, ‘should’ is generally fruitless. You are better off dealing with ‘is’ and ‘is not’ than ‘should’ and ‘should not.’ Should I have been able to flush the toilet paper in Greece? Doesn’t matter what I think. One can’t, and that’s that.
  • Every American in the café is absolutely convinced that his or her country is the greatest and strongest in all world history, and that the world wants only to be just like them, and that if you don’t have Jesus, you are for sure destined for eternity in Hell. If you plan to argue openly with them on any of these points, my advice is ‘don’t go.’ I happen to agree with you that they are wrong on absolutely every count, but my agreement changes nothing. This is what is.

You can get over these. Or not, if having a good time is less important than feeling superior. They’re ready for either way, and thus they do not care which stance you adopt, as you’re going to be interesting either way. Thus, it begins with making some acceptance of these differences, or at least not stressing over them. The ideal approach would be an open mind and good cheer, if you packed that.

Now that you got over the rough stuff, let’s talk about the stuff you’ll like:

  • They value courtesy, if it’s honest and not forced. Good manners, especially toward elders, will warm everyone who sees them, and will generally be shown to you.
  • None of them plan to pull out the guns, much less use them. They are armed; they aren’t stupid or mean. The people who use guns in insane fashion aren’t tolerated here; realize also that if they did so in such a place, someone’s in a position to put a stop to that. You’re very safe.
  • Most are warm-hearted and kind, even if gruff. If you were stuck along the road with a flat tire, or any other problem, most would stop and help you without a second thought. If you were lost, most would take the time to lead you back to your intended path. If you tried to pay them, you would offend them beyond measure; they did it out of kindness, desiring no recompense. Given any excuse, they mean you well.
  • They may be ignorant as all hell, and often tactless (“Germany? Is that so! My grandaddy was in Germany, he helped liberate some concentration camp named Byoukenwald or Ossawich. Said it was real bad.”), but they are interested in what brought you to their town. They have ideas for things for you to see and experience. You may find yourself having a very nice conversation.
  • They can tell if you relax. If you relax, they relax. That’s just human nature. You have it in your power to put the situation at ease. They tend to be curious about outsiders, but not fundamentally suspicious in most places.
  • They have no expectations of dress, other than that you not show up nude. Come as you are. They judge people more on behavior than fashion.

Sizing up cafés like a native

Okay. You just pulled into Varmint Flats, Wyorado, hungry enough that your arm is starting to look appetizing sautéed in garlic butter, and there is only one café in sight. The building looks old and kind of rundown. There are four pickup trucks and two passenger cars parked outside, all with Wyorado license plates. A couple of them have political stickers hating liberals and heckling Obama (our political right is your equivalent of a fascist religious party; our political left is your moderate right wing; we don’t have a left wing at all, as you define the term), liking Jesus, or adoring country music. Should you be worried?

Nah. But you should check it out, and here is my method. Park and go inside, glance around. Ignore the dead animal heads on the wall, and count the number of calendars hanging on it. More is better. Try for a four-calendar place, ideally five or six. Two is lame. I learned this from reading William Least Heat-Moon’s books, and he’s right. Then (noting the sign that says you can sit wherever you like) hang back just a moment to see if the waitress greets you. She is probably named Rhonda, and addresses you as ‘hon’ or ‘sugar’ or ‘sweetie’, exactly as tradition specifies. If Rhonda has kind eyes and seems friendly, she sets that tone for the entire diner. If it has no calendars, or Rhonda seems indifferent and crabby, or you just get a creepy nasty feeling, move on. I know it’s your habitual mealtime, and the world will end if you do not eat precisely at half seven, but you’ll survive to the next town.

Getting acquainted

Okay, you are satisfied with the calendars and waitress and overall feel, and you sit down. If they have a breakfast bar (and they all do), sit up there on one of the barstools; this is a gesture of sociability. Tell Rhonda ‘howdy.’ As soon as she hears your accent, she’ll ask where you’re from, what brings you to this part of the world, general small talk. Just explain that you’re exploring the USA, and wanted to get away from big cities and see the good parts. Everyone who hears that will warm a bit, because they are all convinced (as am I, doubly so after sixteen years living in one) that our big cities are barbarous, rude, fast-talking places full of sin and sneaky car thieves. Plus, it may even be true–this may really be why you’re passing through. But even if it’s not, it’s okay to fib a little.

Socially, it is now permissible and normal for anyone in the diner to initiate conversation with you (easier at the breakfast bar). They think you are glad to be there, and are not judging them, so it would be bad manners for them to start judging you. With few exceptions, they won’t know anything about your country of origin, but they’ll know a lot about their own area. Ask for suggestions on what to see. Ask if there’s a high school sports event going on today–high school sports are as much a civic pastime in small town America as church. If there is one, consider attending: you will see the real America. (I would support the home team if I were you. In winter it might be basketball, which you actually understand.) Ask where the worst speed traps are; avoiding these is one of our national pastimes. Ask about local wildlife, the area’s industries or agriculture, scenic attractions, historical sites and curiosities.

Say nothing about religion or politics, even if they bring it up (some jackass often does). You can’t have a good result from discussing those. (Yes, it is the precise opposite of Europe, where the visiting American immediately becomes held to account by all s/he meets for everything wrong his or her country has done, and is pitied as a hopeless fool if he or she says “Sorry, not into politics.”) If some pushy slob asks why you don’t talk about it, tell them that you read a blog that said, “Any European who comes into a small American town and gets involved in talking religion or politics is a moron. I don’t want to be a moron.” They know that’s true, so it should break the ice and make them laugh, deftly evading a pitfall.

Don’t take offense if people ask you what work you do for a living. This is customary, unlike many parts of the world where it is unbearably rude. At least you can be sure they will not ask how much money you earn, for in the United States, that question is as rude as asking Rhonda her age. Need a WC/toilet? If you can’t spot the sign indicating the toilets, ask Rhonda for the restroom (if you’re male) or the ladies’ room (if female). Some places just have a unisex private restroom. Just don’t ask her for the toilets, even though that’s obviously what you want. If you ask for the washroom, like Canadians do, Rhonda won’t understand. If you ask for the WC, Rhonda will wonder what W.C. Fields has to do with diners.

Most of your jokes aren’t funny to Americans (not offensive, just that they won’t see what’s funny). Most of ours probably aren’t funny to you either, since most of ours aren’t very funny to begin with. Chuckling anyway would be appropriate, unless it’s a racist joke, or otherwise deeply offensive. There’s a species of bigoted redneck, I’m afraid, who cannot resist making offensive statements just to make outsiders squirm. In that case, I’d just not laugh, and move on to another topic, since you can’t win a debate. There’s no other good option.

Expect Westerners and upper Midwesterners to be a little more taciturn and less smiley, which does not mean they are not warm and kind; they are just less demonstrative about it. Expect Southerners and lower Midwesterners to be more outwardly friendly and approachable. They aren’t really very different; it just looks and sounds that way.

Customs

Unless told otherwise, anyone you reckon is old enough to be your parent, call ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am.’ Never mind that they don’t much do it among themselves; they all know each other. However, don’t do it (or anything else) with stiff formality. Also, when greeting someone, don’t say ‘hello’ or ‘hullo’. Practice the word: ‘Howdy.’ If you smile and say ‘howdy’ to people you meet, you cannot fail. Yeah, I know it sounds like a bad cowboy movie. Take my word: if you manage to have a hard time in a small American town when you smile and say ‘howdy’ to people, that’s a real bad town, and other Americans are also eager avoid such a churlish dump. This is not to say you should attempt to adopt a rural accent in your accented English, as a good Swedish friend of mine is always tempted to do. You will sound mocking. It’s okay if you sound foreign and basically British. That’s being your authentic self, which they respect.

Hold doors for people when it seems natural, especially elders, especially women. Remember also that we are a people with a lot of room to maneuver (the way some of us eat, we need it), and we need a good reason to intrude on anyone else’s personal space. Thank Rhonda for bringing you things, even though this is stupid, since it’s her job to do that. Doesn’t matter; it’s the custom and she expects it, and thinks you are rude if you do not. If a man puts out his hand, shake it firmly and look him in the eye. If a woman puts out her hand to shake, do what I do: dread it. Some of them worked in sales, and they shake hands just as men are expected to do. Others just sort of hang down their fingers and you’re supposed to grasp them briefly. If you are a woman, you are safe, because men typically will not reach out to shake your hand (we dread it, and it’s not good manners), and women will do whatever women do (I’m not in a position to know those subtleties). I can only speak with surety about man to man: we expect the other man to meet our eyes and shake firmly. Men who shake weakly, or without eye contact, are registered as weak. Men who try to crush your hand are registered as bullies compensating for small penises. Unfortunately, there are some of those in rural America. Pretend it didn’t hurt.

Menu choices

For breakfast, they usually have some good omelets. I suggest a Spanish or taco omelet, out west. Anywhere else, pancakes are a good bet. In the South, they will bring grits unless you plead with them not to. Ask Rhonda what she likes to put on her grits, and try them that way. They’re still lousy, but don’t tell Rhonda that (a serious faux pas). One of the tribulations of breakfast in the South is that you have to eat and pretend to like your grits. Don’t ask if they have quiche, or what kind of cheese they use. Such petty questions will mark you as a snooty city slicker; this is a country diner, not a food boutique. Biscuits and gravy are a staple, and taste better than you imagine.

For lunch, sandwiches are usually pretty good, especially reubens and patty melts. Don’t ask if they have arugula salad; they might think it’s the Latin name for some internal organ. If you want to make everyone laugh (even kindly Rhonda), eat your French fries with a fork, smearing ketchup on them individually with a knife. A French couple I dined with actually did this. It won’t offend the onlookers, but expect to get kidded about it. If you are kidded about anything, laugh along. They kid each other, so if they kid you, it’s because they like you and are showing you acceptance. In any case, take my word that in the United States you are allowed to eat your fries with your hands. If you want vinegar for them, they probably have some. Rhonda will think it’s funny, but she won’t mind.

If it’s dinner, I’d avoid the liver and onions unless you’re up for a cultural experience. Steaks at diners are often surprisingly lousy for the price. They usually do a great job with chicken, though, and anything that says barbecue or BBQ is probably excellent. I realize that in Europe, maize (which we call corn; if you ask for maize, Rhonda will look at you as if you were an extra-terrestrial) is animal fodder, but you might be surprised how good it is with butter. When in doubt, ask Rhonda what is the best thing on the menu. She knows what the cook does well, and what he does badly, and what takes forever. Trust her.

Should you happen to have ‘saved room for dessert,’ as Rhonda will probably ask you, my advice is to go with pie. Ask her which pie is most popular. She probably baked it herself. In fact, in some small diners, she’s also your cook for everything. If there is one art that is done spectacularly well in small-town America, it is pie. However, you probably won’t have room for dessert because American portions are very large. If you are too full, Rhonda understands and isn’t hurt.

Leaving

When you’re ready to pay and leave, tip Rhonda 15-20%, minimum $2. Europeans are terrible tippers, but the good news is that Rhonda has hardly met any Europeans, so she doesn’t know that. Over 20% implies that you feel sorry for the poor country people, and is thus too much. Under 15% implies that you’re a cheap bastard. If you use a credit card–if they take cards–you can put it on the card, though Rhonda will be happier if you tip in cash because then she can avoid some of the tax. If you pay cash, set the tip in a discreet spot on the table. Rhonda lives on tips; in most states, she gets about 1/3 of the normal minimum hourly wage. She gets taxed on her tips as if they were all at least 9% of the check, so if she gets less than that, it stings both her pride and her budget. Rhonda probably has three children and her ex-husband is probably behind on his child support, and she works hard and tries to smile even when she’s had a bad day. Unless she did a very lousy job, she deserves a decent tip.

Exchange brief goodbyes with everyone you spoke with, and let them know you’re glad you stopped there, thanking them for any guidance they offered. No need to be ostentatious, but if you conversed with people, it is against custom to leave without acknowledging them. Wish Rhonda a good day/evening, or if it’s Friday, a good weekend. If anyone encourages you to ‘come back any time,’ or says ‘hope to see you again sometime,’ you should believe him or her. Yes, I know that you have heard and read a great deal about our vapid casual superficiality, where we supposedly mean nothing we say. This is an exception. We only say that when we truly want to make the point that we enjoyed visiting with you. If this occurs, you are mastering the art of Being European In Rural America.

Summary

If I had to summarize the key to good dining experiences in small town America, I’d say the key is to relax and not be afraid. Unless you’re rude to them, they mean you well. They hope you will tell people what a nice town it was, and that its people are pleasant. Just avoid a few taboos, trust your instincts, and you’ll find that eating is part of the American exploration adventure. After a few experiences, you’ll start to get good at this, and you’ll be looking forward to the next one.

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4 thoughts on “A European’s guide to podunk American café dining”

  1. Loved this and the pie part was right on! My advice is that one should break on a road trip at a particularly worthy spot just for a piece of pie in the afternoon!
    It took me a minute to ken what breakfast bar meant as images of Shoney’s or hotel lobbies came to mind. Then I realized that you meant “lunch counter”. lol
    Finally, I am sorry you have never had good grits, Jonathan. Cooked well, they are heaven, cooked poorly, purgatory. I know I can make some grits that you’d eat, because I make these light lemon cookies with grits and they are awesome!

    Like

    1. Heh, Shannon, thank you. I only had them once, did not see why anyone would eat them if there were something better (say, pine needles). But I wanted mostly to prepare my reader for them, and the need to pretend that they are okay. I believe you when you tell me they can be better, though.

      Like

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