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.
Hi Kate, Now i have to interject a comment here. Fried farina was a treat when i was growing up and I recently had fried oatmeal for lunch when i was home alone and had cooked too much oatmeal for Lonnie one morning. My mother just took whatever hot cereal was leftover at breakfast time and put it in a frying pan with a little butter and formed it into a little cake, about the size of a small, flattish hamburger and cooked it until it was kind of golden brown on both sides. You can put a little brown or white sugar, even a little maple syrup, or even nothing at all on top. The cereal develops a sweet taste and a little crunch on the outside. I never eat a bowl of hot cereal but love the little fried cakes of the leftovers. I don’t think my kids would ever have had this because with four of them, and Dougie included, we never had any leftovers when they were growing up……. Did you read about Laurie Colwin in the Times on Wed? I have her book Home Cooking and her novel, A Big Storm Knocked it Over, and a book of short stories. Passion and Affect. I loved her writing. Amy first bought me Home Cooking 20 years ago and then the novel after that. I guess i bought the short stories later. Her way of talking about cooking reminds me of yours in a way. Lots of talk about the circumstances around the cooking and then what I would describe as a fairly casual recipe, not one that is measured in ounces and grams. Read you review in the latest Elle and always happy to hear about your adventures. Bette
Bette, that sounds delicious! I had no idea… thanks for setting me straight. I’d like to try it.
And yes, I love Laurie Colwin’s writing and her down-home lack of pretentiousness and casual way with recipes. Nice to hear from a fellow fan!
love from Kate
K Mart had blue light specials for things on sale at the moment, and there are blue laws in NJ, and elsewhere, which state that no modern electronic appliances or anything electronic may be sold on a Sunday. It is very strange to walk into Mitsuwa, a Japanese mall in Edgewater across the Hudson River, on a Sunday and certain aisles are closed down because they contain appliances, rice cookers, etc. The whole mall area around it is pretty much closed down. It is a very good day to go and find little Asian treats and look across at Manhattan.
I would love to send you guys little treats from my travels…
Well, Bette (hi Bette! I’m Liz) you make it sound delicious. Context is everything. Mine was cooked on an old hot plate, balanced on the tiny window sill of my $6 a week room in a very smelly place up on 116th Street off Broadway. The building, I suddenly remembered when putting myself back in that room, had The Galatea (!) written in beautiful tiles inside the front door. The tiles by the 1950s were all worn down and colorless. In the dead of winter I used to walk past families sitting outside on newspapers waiting for their 12-hour turn at a room. I was the queen who had her room all 24 hours, every day.
I would put my cello into its case – finally! after practicing for hours and hours because I was in music school – and take the tiny bed table off the sagging narrow bed (smelly from all the thousands of other people who had slept on it). And then, to have room to take the one step over to the windowsill I would put the chair up on the bed. Yes, the room was small, but out the window was leafy and large.
I would take down the bowl of leftover farina and slice it (using my hand as a cutting board) and put it into the fry pan with a wee bit of ….probably margarine that I had to mix the yellow color into. I would be almost fainting with hunger and the smell was incredible. Finally it would be done enough and I’d flop it onto my chipped plate and flop myself onto the chair, which I’d pulled down from the bed. I couldn’t wait another second – I’d put a huge bite into my mouth, it burned and I didn’t care. An ecstatic meal.
Mom, I’m thrilled that you came by to set the record straight on fried farina. That poor young girl, starving in her fetid, squalid closet! The food of youthful poverty might be the best food of a lifetime. Back in my rat hole on the airshaft, my swoon-worthy, starch-heavy staple was takeout rice and beans, with chicken when I could afford it and lots of hot sauce, and a bottle of cold beer.
So glad your mother chimed in. I was pretty sure “fried farina” was cold Cream of Wheat, sliced and fried. Foodies are all about the polenta these days. But both are cheap and delicious and when fried the next day. With butter and maple syrup if you’re not starving student.
We too love the Japanese yams for oven fries. Had them tonight, and I went with your White Trash Fancy Sauce instead of just mayo. Perfect. It reminded of me of plain Russian dressing (no relish). Looking up it’s origin, it turns out you’re in the heart of Russian dressing territory. Maybe it’s in the air?
It depends on where you’re from. Fried grits the next day is Deep South & the perfect excuse to use a little bacon grease. Farina, oatmeal, are the same way of hooking up breakfast: lol gluten free citizens of the future will use quinoa I guess.
Hey Kate, speaking of using leftovers, I found you rather indirectly thru an old NPR piece you wrote about oysters & MFK Fisher, as I wrote my own riff about “dem ersters” and gave that long ago moment props. I find it quite touching how you conjured a central aspect from that into The Epicure’s Lament. I see that I have much exciting reading ahead…to catch up to where you’ve been!
For no particular reason at all I give you the Blue Plate Special every lunchtime ( well it’s my lunchtime here in Ireland ) on Tennessee’s own WDVX Radio out of the Smoky Mountains.
Aint the internet a wonderful thing for connecting strangers.
Beautiful post, I always love your writing and getting little tidbits of stories from New England. Thank you!
Hi Kate. I read your writing here a lot, but I don’t think I have ever commented. This is just latest in a string of posts that I have especially loved. Keep up the wonderful work—clinking my glass against the computer screen to you 🙂
Very much enjoyed reading your marvelous style of writing in this piece about the fried grits/farina. Google search found it because I have had that song about Mammy and the shortenin’ bread in my head for two days now. Evidently I learned one of the words wrong (lid). I thought all these years I was hearing “lead” as I heard others sing the song. So I was picturing in my mind that a “lead” was another cooking utensil similar to a skillet. So today I did the Google search which found your article. Thankfully you have enlightened me on that one.
In any case, you are an interesting and entertaining writer. Thanks for what you do.