Check out A1 Diner, Real Food, Recipes, & Recollections
by Sarah Rolph
I have recently been in contact with Sarah Rolph. I knew about her through various people including Dick Gutman (author of American Diner Then & Now and The Worcester Lunch Car Company) who contributed archival photos as well as a promo blurb on the back cover, and Ron Dylewski of “The American Roadside” website (http://www.theamericanroadside.com/) . In fact it was Ron who first put me in touch with her just over a year ago. Anyway Sarah wrote a book that came out in 2006 that I finally added to my Diner/Roadside library and it is a really great read!
This book captures the essence of the A1 Diner in Gardiner, Maine. This is Worcester Lunch Car # 790, a lovingly maintained circa 1946 vintage semi-streamlined model installed in a unique location. Originally known as Heald’s Diner (the name is still emblazoned on the porcelain panels) the diner is actually mounted on a steel frame 20 feet above ground to place the building adjacent to the bridge that crosses the Cobbossee Stream. The Diner’s front and side doors are entered from the bridge. You can also walk down stairs on the left side of the diner to the street below and actually view the underside of the diner.
I first knew about this diner through the book Diners of the Northeast by Donald Kaplan and Alan Bellink. Their book was a state by state guide to diners from Maine to New Jersey published in 1980 by The Berkshire Traveller Press. Of the diners in Maine they reviewed, the A1 (then still known as Wakefield’s Diner) seemed to be one of the highlights of their research.
Sarah Rolph’s book features reminisces and stories from original owner Eddie Heald’s daughter Marguerite Gagne to second owner Maurice Wakefield to third owner Albert Giberson leading to current owners Mike Giberson and Neil Andersen. Along the way there are also stories from waitresses and other workers through the years, most notably Bob Newell who worked for every owner until retiring within the last 2 or 3 months.
Customers old and new chime in as well and the sense of history and nostalgia, not to mention sense of place and community come shinning through, making one want to take the long ride up to Gardiner to experience this place again (or even for the first time if you’ve never been). Interspersed throughout are recipes for meals from the respective different owners/cooks and time periods down the years.
I asked Sarah how she came about writing this book and she answered…..
I learned about the diner from my friend Karen Molvig. (She is no longer living.) I met Karen when we both lived in Manhattan, in the late 1970s. I was in my early twenties (I’m 54 now). I moved to Boston in 1980. Several years later, Karen moved to Maine—the Great Escape from the city. She bought a place in Gardiner and eventually found A1 Diner. Knowing I would enjoy the place, she took me there for supper on one of my visits. She and her partner Jean had started to become friends with Mike and Neil, so that made it easy to meet them.
I am originally from California, and had never been in an authentic diner. I was fascinated by the small size, the fine materials, and the charm of the place. I also loved the food. As I got to know Mike, who was the main chef during the time I visited—late 1990s—he told me stories about the history of the diner. It was clear he was very proud of his role in keeping the place alive and making it better, and it seemed like a really interesting story to me, the way the diner’s ups and downs reflected the changes of the town.
When Mike and Neil purchased the diner, in the late 1980s, it was a difficult time in Gardiner. I loved the small-business success story, the way Mike and Neil patiently worked to make the diner a success according to their longstanding vision. They had to move very slowly, to keep from alienating their small cadre of regular customers and to keep from signaling to the town that this new version of the diner would be for yuppies only. They really wanted to stay true to the diner’s heritage as a center of a community, and they succeeded in doing that while also upgrading it. Now, as you know, you can still get a good old-fashioned hamburger, but you can also get Asian noodles.
When I met them, Mike and Neil had largely achieved this vision, but they told me stories about the way it had been when they started, and it was clear that it had been a long and difficult road. I really admired their ability to achieve their dream through sheer hard work and imagination. It seemed like that alone was a great story, the small-business challenges that had finally paid off.
Ruth Reichl’s first memoir, Tender at the Bone, had come out around that time, and Mike and I both enjoyed it very much. It reminded me of Mike, too. Ruth learned to cook when she was a little kid, and so did Mike—he told me he would cook when nobody was home, and if the dish didn’t work out he would hide the evidence. That book included recipes, which has since become a bit of a trend. We thought it would be fun to do a history of the diner with recipes from every era. I wanted to use the same approach Reichl did, having each recipe fit with one of the stories. (In the end, I had to cheat a little bit to make it work out so that there were recipes in every chapter. We didn’t have any recipes from the Eddie Heald era, but we used a modern soufflé recipe since we served soufflé to Marguerite Gagne when I interviewed her at the diner. (Sadly, she is no longer living.)
Tilbury House, Publishers, is located in Gardiner, Maine, so it was an easy sell. In fact the publisher had been hoping someone would write a book about the diner and asked Neil—he told her someone was working on something, so she wasn’t even surprised to hear from me!
Once I had the contract with Tilbury I did more research, spent a lot of time with Mike and Neil, interviewed Cindy and Bob, and interviewed Maurice Wakefield over the phone. He was living in Florida at the time (he, too, has since died). His mind was still very sharp, although his hearing was starting to go. He had a special phone that increased the volume. His daughter would make the appointments with me and take the call and then tell Maurice to get on his phone.
He was great to interview, remembered a lot of stories, and wanted to tell me exactly how things were. He was so pleased that people still remembered him and still cared. It had been about thirty years, so he thought people would have forgotten him, but they had not. Not only did the diner people I interviewed have stories about Maurice, but people in town remembered him, too.
When I went to the State Library to look for old clippings, the gal who showed me how to use the microfiche machine, when I said I was writing about the diner, said “Oh! Wakefield’s?!” It was still Wakefield’s to her. I was pleased to tell Maurice that. I did two long phone interviews with him, and then I decided I really wanted to meet him, so Mike and I traveled to Florida and spent an afternoon with him. It was really fun, the two of them talked about every little thing about the diner, the small details they both still enjoyed. It was quite fun to hear them comparing notes about the place, and of course about the people—Cindy and Bob both worked for both Maurice and Mike.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and give it a Diner Hotline “Approved” rating! It is available at Amazon….