The other night, I was talking on the phone, an occurrence much rarer than a blue moon, to a brand-new friend named Melissa who lives in Montreal. It started out as an interview, which is how she got me on the phone at all, but quickly devolved into, or rather progressed to, a fun exchange of banter and stories, in the course of which we exchanged information about what we were eating right then. She, being in a big French-influenced city, had amassed an enviable spread. This included champagne, shrimp cocktail, and two kinds of fresh oysters, shucked by her husband, who is 11 years younger than she is; “my child bride,” she called him, whereupon I told her about Brendan’s and my idea of a cooking show called “Cougar Kitchen.” This led to an interesting side discussion of our respective happy marriages.
Then we got back to food. I, despite being in the middle of something like nowhere, had a couple of good cheeses, some mixed spicy olives, and a bottle of excellent $12 Rioja on hand, thanks to Brendan, who had gone shopping earlier that day. I had requested phone-friendly, non-crunchy, savory snacks, and he’d found the best Hannaford had to offer.
“So what are you going to cook for dinner after we hang up?” Melissa asked.
Swallowing a chunk of Wisconsin white cheddar, I told her: a pound of boneless, skinless fresh chicken thighs, marinated in a winning combination of harissa spices with jerk spices, baked in peanut oil. The jerk spices were sent to me by a former Iowa student, Nana, a Cameroonian-American who got them on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, and who immediately became my favorite person in the world when they arrived. She had made amazing, addictive jerk chicken for our final workshop; I’d asked her for the recipe, and she had not forgotten.
“I read in your blog that you like packages in the mail,” Melissa said then, in a tone I took to be promising, whereupon I immediately gave her my address, spelling the street name carefully so that anything that might happen to come in the mail from Montreal wouldn’t go astray.
Alongside the spicy thighs, I went on, I’d cut Japanese yams into wedges and toss them with garlic powder, cumin, smoked paprika, and basil, then roast them on a cookie sheet in more peanut oil. “Japanese yams are so much better for cottage fries than the other kinds,” I said excitedly, swilling some wine. “They’re firm and starchy and just sweet enough. The other kinds are too sweet, and they fall apart.”
I was planning to serve the chicken and yams with White Trash Fancy Sauce, a highly sophisticated recipe I hit upon a while back and have never altered: a mixture of equal parts ketchup and mayonnaise I find perniciously addictive and not entirely unlike McDonalds Special Sauce. And for the veg, two bunches of red chard, chopped up and sautéed in chicken broth, chopped garlic, and olive oil, which, I bragged, had come from Brendan’s family’s olive trees in Tuscany.
“You should brag about that,” she said.
“I do,” I said. “And now that I think of it, this meal is a blue plate special.”
“This brings me to an actual official question. What is a blue plate special, exactly? An old American diner term?”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s a cheap diner meal, some meat, a starch, and a veg or two.”
“Did they use actual blue plates?”
I considered this question. Did I really not know the answer? I really didn’t, although I had named a whole book after the thing.
“Something of an oversight, I think,” said Melissa.
“You could say that,” I said. “You know, it always felt like my family’s made-up term, something our mother made us in memory of the years when she was a poor student, living in New York, eating fried farina she made on a hot plate in her tiny rented room. A blue plate special was a big treat, and I think she would eat her friends’ leavings on their plates…”
I tried to picture the scene. Were the plates in question literally blue?
“What’s fried farina?”
“Also a good question,” I said. “It sounds disgusting. I should get the recipe from her.”
“You should!” she said.
We hung up after almost two hours of comparing the many parallels in our lives, shooting the breeze about food, and occasionally clinking our wineglasses against the mouthpieces of our phones. Then I made dinner, exactly as described, and Brendan and I set upon it like ravenous wolverines while Dingo and his visiting best friend, Brendan’s aunt’s dog, Bandito, watched from a polite but easy-access distance on the floor nearby, their eyes never leaving our forks.
While we ate, I went to Wikipedia and looked up “blue plate special” and found the following: “It refers to a specially low-priced meal, usually changing daily. It typically consists of a ‘meat and three’ (three vegetables), presented on a single plate, often a divided plate rather than on separate dishes. The term was very common from the 1920s through the 1950s. As of 2007, there are still a few restaurants and diners that offer blue-plate specials under that name, sometimes on blue plates, but it is a vanishing tradition. The phrase itself, however, is still a common American colloquial expression. A web collection of 1930s prose gives this definition: ‘A Blue Plate Special is a low-priced daily diner special: a main course with all the fixins, a daily combo, a square for two bits.’”
As for the “blue” part of the equation, no one is exactly sure, but it probably comes from those blue, segmented plates as well as Spode or Wedgewood blue willow patterned plates, both of which were popular in restaurants back then.
The entry goes on, “In contemporary use, a ‘blue-plate special’ can be any inexpensive full meal, any daily selection, or merely a whimsical phrasing.”
That’s the expression as I know it, and as my mother used it: a blue plate special is a plain, cozy, square meal, filling and cheap, nourishing and satisfying, the kind she used to serve us, our favorite kind of meal.
We swiped the last yam wedges through the Fancy Sauce and pushed our plates away, glutted, slaked, and stuffed.