Mill Pond Diner of Wareham, Mass., photo copyright – Larry Cultrera
A newspaper article appeared in the March 4th edition of Cape Cod Times and capecodonline.com written by Gwenn Friss features the Mill Pond Diner of Wareham, Mass. and an interview with Dick Gutman (for historical perspective) with an extensive mention of the Diner exhibit at the Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, RI.
The exhibit, Diners, Still cookin’ in the 21st Century primarily featuring artifacts from Dick and Kellie Gutman’s extensive collection was originally slated to have a limited run from 2002 to June of 2008. But since Dick is now the Director of the Museum, the exhibit is more or less permanent. Anyway, here is the copy of the article….
Diners through the decades
By Gwenn Friss
March 4, 2009
William Goyette, owner of the Mill Pond Diner in Wareham, tells a story about a woman who came in many years ago for a takeout coffee, but, on learning it was 50 cents, complained that the place down the street sold it for 10.
“Then that’s where you should go,” Goyette told her.
“They’re closed,” she said.
“Oh,” Goyette chuckled. “When I’m closed, I sell it for a nickel.”
Although the incident sounds like a Jack Benny joke, Goyette swears it really happened shortly after he bought the diner 35 years ago.
Either way, the story efficiently summarizes the mission of diners to sell a wide variety of good homemade food, cheaply and quickly, when and where you need it.
In fact, when diners got their start in the late 1800s, they were on wheels. Entrepreneurs would load up sandwich fixings, drinks and a homemade pie or two and head down to the local newspaper office – one of the places that traditionally had a third shift of workers, says Richard J.S. Gutman, author of “American Diner Then and Now” (The Johns Hopkins University Press, revised 2001).
“Street food, sold from little carts or wagons, is everywhere. We have images of coffee wagons in Great Britain. And the American diner did start out as this place that wandered,” Gutman says. “But the homestyle cooking and the wide range of things (on the menu), from a meal down to a snack, is quite different from street food.”
Schooled as an architect at Cornell University in the late 1960s, Gutman took his first diner photo in 1970 and never stopped. Loading his golden retriever, Willie, into his pearl-gray Audi, Gutman would hit the road in search of diners.
“Gas was cheap, time was plentiful, and I’d find a good place and talk to the people there and they’d say, ‘Oh, have you tried this place down the street?’ and I’d go there next.”
Gutman estimates there are about 2,000 diners still operating, most of them in the Northeast where the companies that manufactured diners were located. He included a list in his book.
Although you can’t get a burger or wrecked eggs (scrambled, in diner lingo) there, you can experience the history of the diner in a permanent exhibit Gutman helped create in 2002 at the Johnson & Wales Culinary Museum in Providence. He is now the museum’s director.
Guests walk through an actual diner entranceway into the exhibit which begins in 1872 with Walter Scott of Providence, who is credited with creating the diner business by loading food into a converted horse-drawn wagon.
“It was a great idea and there were immediate competitors,” Gutman says. “Sam Jones moved from Providence to Worcester and, in 1887, built the first wagon customers could go inside.”
The museum has examples of the attention-grabbing colored glass windows originally lit from inside the closed cart by gas lamps. One window would contain the menu: sandwiches, pies, boiled eggs, coffee, milk and cigars. “Pretty much everything was a nickel,” Gutman says.
While the dark windows offered privacy, the atmosphere tended to draw mostly working men. Realizing they were missing out on women and children who could more than double the customer base, diner owners looked to a more open, inviting design that included salads and other light fare. Owners aimed to make counter seats comfortable for women and even put hooks under the counter to hang handbags.
The diner counter was making a sociological impact, Gutman says, because men, women and children were sitting shoulder-to-shoulder. In the early to middle years of the last century, that contact was unheard of.
“Diners charged more for table service. Men and women migrated to the counter. Everybody began doing it,” he says. “Stools would be 24 inches on center and you are literally rubbing elbows, especially if you’re asking for the ketchup.”
On July 1, 1941, Arthur E. Sieber received a patent for split diner construction, a prefab option that allowed buyers to customize their diners. The new look was all big windows and hard, shiny surfaces like ones seen in many diners today.
Goyette, who brought the Mill Pond Diner from Providence to its current site (which has boasted one diner or another since the 1930s), spends a lot of time and money to keep his 1953 diner authentic. The original yellow Formica counter is worn at the edges, but still shiny and slick. He recently reupholstered the booths in a vibrant blue, as close to the original shade as he could find. The decades-old Coca-Cola dispenser still works, but it’s used for decoration now. The original four-door stainless steel fridge built into the wall is in use because Goyette had the inside modernized.
The Mill Pond, one of hundreds of diners Gutman has visited, is like other diners in that it helps preserve the history of its community.
“I think that being good at what they do, they know their clientele and they know what to sell. They do seasonal things or rotating specials,” Gutman says. “Diners mirror popular culture, reflect or sometimes even set the trend. The recent trend of eating locally, in terms of a mom-and-pop place getting food that is local, is something diners have always bought into.”
At his place in Wareham, Goyette does what he’s always done: works six or seven days a week; adds seasonal specials like New England boiled dinner to standards like meatloaf; and worries about the bottom line. Glancing at a blackboard that advertises a bowl of beef stew and a roll for $3.99, he sighs, “I keep trying to get them to raise that (price) just a little.”
Learn the lingo
Want to work at an old-fashioned diner? You have to know the language. See if you know the meaning of these expressions a counterman would use when calling out orders:
– Adam and Eve on a raft: two poached eggs on toast
– Adam’s ale: water
– Bossy in a bowl: beef stew (because Bossy was a common name for a cow)
– Sand: sugar
– Seadust: salt
– Breath: onion
– 86: Do not sell that item because the kitchen is out. (May have come from the practice at Chumley’s Restaurant in New York City of throwing rowdy customers out the back door near 86 Bedford St.)
Source: Little Chefs’ Diner at The Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales
Entrance to “Diners, Still Cookin’ in the 21st Century” exhibit at The Culinary Arts Museum, Johnson & Wales University
If you go
What: The Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales
Where: 315 Harborside Blvd. on the Providence, R.I., and Cranston city line
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday
Admission: $7 for adults, $6 seniors, $2 ages 5 to 18, free under 5.
More info: http://www.culinary.org or call 401-598-2805.