Welcome back, laddies and lassies, to the Culinary Compendium, our ongoing Dictionary of dining definitions! Today’s installment is going to illuminate you on a particular type of cooking cant: that of Diner Lingo! Now, normally, I’d just open with a definition of Diner Lingo, but this one actually has several items that would show up first alphabetically, so a little ground work is in order.
“Diner Lingo” is a type of slang found in, you guessed it, diners. Specifically, it’s a semi-secret set of references and sentences used to encode diner orders for waitresses and short-order cooks. The ‘language’ is unique to America, and I have my personal theory for why it exists: simply put, an old-timey diner setting is kind of boring to work in. The dining area typically only sits about 20-30 people, many of the meals are rather simple, and there are, depending on the location of the diner, plenty of periods of downtime.
As such, waitresses and cooks invented a set of jokes and references they could use to ‘liven’ up customer orders, to help them pass the time. These also served to help make orders more memorable by using more vivid imagery. As an example: “Walk a cow through the garden, make it cry and pin a rose on it”, for example, is much more distinct than the 16th time you have to say “Hamburger with lettuce (garden), onion (cry), and tomato (rose)".
The language is notable for containing, as you’ll see, a wide array of Biblical references, maybe to serve as a fun little risque humor, or to make the strange cries seem more palatable to Midwest crowds, some of whom may have been coming straight from Church. The exact origin for when this trend started has been lost to time, and it may be lost in the future, as the diner’s popularity declines, but for now, let’s learn the secret tongue spoken in diners across America*.
*NOTE: Diner Lingo is actually hyper-regional, with many phrases ONLY being used in a single location, serving as inside jokes for the staff. So while all the phrases I detail here ARE legitimate phrases, that doesn’t mean if you walked into a diner in your town and tossed them out, anyone would know what you’re saying.
1. V. Potentially the most influential diner lingo term, having moved from diners to broader restaurants, to other businesses and even organized crime. To “86” is to remove an item menu, or a customer from the premises (Organized Crime tends to use the phrase to mean “Murder”, so we can assume they consider “their premises” all of Earth.) For instance, if a restaurant ran out of chicken breast, they would be forced to ‘86’ their Chicken Cordon Bleu for the evening. If a customer was too intoxicated, he could be “86”ed, and either forced to leave, or at least refused service.
2. Etymology: uncertain. There are many THEORIES for where the term arose. A popular speakeasy during Prohibition had a back exit leading to 86 Bedford street, and some claim that people on the take would let the owner know to “86” his clients before a raid. Another potential origin is the US Navy, which had “AT Codes”, a system for noting why items were on a ship. (Personal belongings, necessary for repairs, etc), and “AT-6” was the code for “item is to be disposed of”. One last prominent theory is it represented death from the beginning, as the average grave is dug 8 feet by 6 feet. Therefore, someone or something being “eight-by-sixed” meant “buried”. Snopes.com, however, contends that the most likely origin is a bit of rhyming slang, wherein “86” may have stood for “nix”, meaning “no, nothing, knock it off”.
Adam and Eve on a Raft
1. N. Two Poached Eggs on a Piece of Toast. A Rack or Raft was a common name for Toast, one of several as we’ll soon see. Why exactly Poached eggs would be called “Adam and Eve” is hard to note, other than perhaps as a reference to the softest and therefore “purest” of eggs.
2. Notable in being one of the oldest known pieces of diner slang: the phrase is found in use as far back as 1894!
1. N. Garlic. Because, you know, Little Italy is in the Bronx. Though at least one source I checked said it was a joke about Jews. Which, if I may be a little insensitive: in 1902, let’s face it, half of New York was Italian and Jewish immigrants. So if you wanted to be racist, you were bound to have some casualties.
"All you Jews, coming over here, taking our jobs!"
"Di cosa Parli?"
"Oh, my apologies, Ms Boiardi, I, uh...didn't recognize you."
1. N. Eggs. Because chickens cackle.
Clean up the Kitchen/Customer will take a Chance/Mystery in the Alley
1. N. Hash. As noted, the regional nature of diner lingo meant that, as people researched it, they found a lot of overlap.
1. N. Toast. Either because you placed the bread down on the griddle, or because you pressed down the handle on the side of the toaster. Several jokes were stacked onto this one, based on what type of toast. “Whiskey Down” for Rye Toast, for instance.
Not to be confused with "downing whiskey", another diner staple.
Eve with a Cap
1. N. Apple Pie. Like I said, there were a LOT of biblical references, with a particular focus on Eve. Here, we see of course a reference to the Temptation of Adam, and also, Hats.
1. N. A rack of Ribs. Because of Eve, again, since she was made from one of Adam’s Ribs.
1. N. Spaghetti (probably with meatballs). I just really liked this name. For one thing, calling the constantly knotted up spaghetti Entanglements is somehow adorable. Also, it's a reference to a long standing American political argument. Like, "from 1796 to today" levels. The phrase is tied to George Washington's Farewell Address, and refers to Washington noting that "It seems a lot of Americans are siding with Britain or France in their latest fight. Guys, just remember, those countries aren't America. Don't get us tied up in their political squabbles over things that win us nothing." Either that or he was saying "Never involve America in foreign affairs, except in commercial dealings." Depends on who you ask.
1. N. Jell-O. Do I need to explain this?
Are you familiar with the phrase "Weebles Wobble, but they won't fall down"?
1. N. Ham. Because, you know, there’s little call in Diners for a plate of Shem, the cool son whose descendants are Jews, or Japheth, father of Magog, Tubal, and Gomer. No, we get the son who people used to justify racism, father to Cush and Mizraim.
How many of you assumed I made up at least one name in that? Because, fun fact: all true. Apparently Gomer Pyle was named after one of the grandsons of Noah.
1. N. Tuna fish sandwich. Because the order for the sandwich toast would be “Tuna Down”, like “tune it down.” Remember the good old days when our confusing slang at least had to RHYME?
1. N. Cherries. Or Cherry Pie. Because of…well…you know. (If you don’t know, potentially because you’re not an American, (we did have a notable number of readers in Russia for a while), “Cherry” is a long-running (definitely in use by 1889) slang term for a woman’s hymen. Presumably…because…when you “popped” it…you got red “juice”. Look, it’s important to know the history of words, sometimes so we can decide that it’s time to retire them.)
1. V. Scramble the eggs. This was recorded as an immediate follow-up to the famed “Adam and Eve on a Raft” order: the diner, after ordering the poached eggs on toast, then changed his mind to scrambled, leading the server to call back to the kitchen “Shipwreck that order.” Later, they even added “Sink the raft, save the couple” for a patron wanting just the eggs without toast.
Lucky we got that new cook in last week, eh?
Yellow Blanket on a Dead Cow
1. N. Cheeseburger. Remember what I said about the evocative imagery of the names? Well, this is one hell of a mental picture, ain’t it?
That concludes our exploration of diner lingo. By no means have I covered even a quarter of the phrases you can find (There are at least 4 different names for “a glass of water”, for instance.) But finding and exploring the history of something like this is exactly what we aim to achieve here at Kitchen Catastrophe. And we do so through the support of readers LIKE YOU! If you have any favorite diner slang you know, let us know in the comments! And don’t forget to share this clearly very valuable resource with your friends and family. And tip the server, why don’t you?
MONDAY: JON THROWS A YELLOW BLANKET OVER HIS OWN “RADIO”, SERVED WHISKEY DOWN. THAT’S RIGHT, IT’S TUNA MELT TIME!