As a child of the baby boom era, my family life was much like those on ’60s sitcoms. Mom stayed home and took care of the house and children, and Dad went to work every day. Dinner was kept warm until he came home from the office, so bonding with the kids usually meant asking obligatory questions about our day at the dinner table or watching TV together. We’d say good night, go to bed and then see him off to work in the morning. I never imagined what went on while I was sleeping.
Most nights, a few hours after my brother and I fell asleep, my dad would wake from his evening nap and head out of the house. I would have been thrilled to think that he was a part of some secret mission or doing undercover police work, but he was simply going to eat his “real’ dinner at the local diner, called the Toddle House.
The Toddle House, a national restaurant chain that specialized in serving breakfast, was open 24/7. Each tiny outlet was built to the same plan. No tables; just a short counter with ten stools. Famous for their grill-fried hash browns and burgers and their incredible chocolate “ice box” pie, the tiny kitchen space and single grill cook could whip up any number of artery-clogging treats.
My father was a glutton for greasy foods like bacon and sausage, but since my mom kept a kosher home, he never got that at the dinner table. And although my mom tried to stock plenty of Hostess cupcakes, Mallomars, and greasy potato chips in the house for his late-night cravings, he could only get his fix at the Toddle House.
This secret sanctuary was first revealed to me at the tender age of 10. As my homework got more difficult, I stayed up later. During one particularly late study session, I heard the front door open. It was after 11 o’clock and the noise scared me. I crept down the top steps so I could check out the situation and saw my dad putting on his coat and hat.
“Are you going to work now?” I asked
He looked a little sheepish, but then he turned to me and smiled.
“If you can get your coat and shoes on in two minutes, I’ll take you for the best treat you’ve ever had!”
So began my indoctrination into the world of “breakfast anytime”, because once we got there, that was all I wanted. Sitting at the counter, watching the cook break open eggs with one hand and flip pancakes with the other, I imagined ordering everything on the menu.
Besides my dad and me, there were only about two or three other people in the diner. The waitress greeted my father by name and didn’t even ask him what he wanted. She poured him a cup of coffee and had the cook start an order of eggs, bacon and hashed browns.
“And you, little one?” she asked.
I looked over at my dad who asked, “Pie or breakfast. It’s your choice!”
“Breakfast!” I blurted out. “Pancakes!” And the show began.
Our stools at the counter were so close to the open grill that I could almost touch it. The eggs sat out in an open carton next to a milkshake machine (the green porcelain kind with a silver blending cup). An aluminum pitcher, filled with melted butter, bubbled on the grill, and I watched as the fry cook ladled out enough to start the hash browns. I watched him grab a metal ring (kind of like a spring pan for cheesecake, but only about three inches in diameter) and stuff some shredded potatoes inside. He fried them until they were crisp on one side and flipped them to finish the process. Then, he turned the ring onto the plate and out came a perfect disc of golden spuds!
And it didn’t stop there. He mixed the pancake batter in the milkshake machine and formed flawless circles with the batter on the grill. At the exact moment they began to bubble, a spatula appeared in his hand and he flipped them. No uneven, burnt pieces with gooey middles like the ones that came from my mother’s Farberware pans. These were golden, fluffy, and incredibly tasty.
As we ate, my dad chatted with the waitress named Betty, explaining that now that I was older, I had to work harder in school, but he knew that I could handle the extra load. She asked me about my brother, my mom’s new car, and even my dog, Nikki. It was obvious that Dad had spent a few evenings there bragging about his brood. He even had me tell Betty about the salt clay map I was working on. I didn’t even think he knew what grade I was in, let alone which assignments I was doing!
I finished every last bite of my pancakes and, as I scraped the plate for crumbs, I looked over and saw my dad smiling at me.
Thus began a lifetime fixation for diner food, be it bacon and eggs, burgers and fries, or pancakes covered in butter and syrup. Our before bedtime outings turned into pre-Sunday school food fests! They continued well into my teenage and college years. I’d cross paths with my dad going out as I came home, needing to sober up from the campus bars. Our diner excursions gave us the time to share with each other as we devoured our plates together.
When my children were born, he joyfully introduced them to this world of coffee shop camaraderie, bragging to the waitresses and cooks about their preschool accomplishments. They knew breakfast with Grandpa had no limits on fat, sugar or quantity and his indulgence raised him to hero status in their eyes!
He’s been gone sixteen years this November and, to this day, I can’t eat pancakes without thinking of him. Most major religions have all sorts of rituals to make sure we never forget those we have lost, and saying a prayer in remembrance is important. But, I find the same comfort remembering that I got to be part of Dad’s secret little late night feasts at the Toddle House!