Kile Smith on composing in a diner

A diner is a diner, and a concert is a concert, but sometimes...


A diner is a diner, but you never know. In Cincinnati for concerts of Canticle, a new choral work of mine, I spied a diner in an indoor mall near the downtown hotel where I was staying. When I peeked in and saw rounded peninsulas of counters bordered by padded stools, and when I saw waitresses wearing crisp, collared uniforms, with receipt books, and straws at the ready in their apron pockets, I knew where I’d be having breakfast all week.
 

Grapefruit juice and goetta. (Illustration for BSR by Mike Jackson of alrightmike.com)

I don’t need to look at the menu; I already know what I want and I know they’ll have it. Scrambled eggs are what I want in a diner, and whether to accompany them with pancakes or French toast and bacon or sausage, those are my only decisions. Grapefruit juice, yes, which, oddly, I only ever drink in a diner. Of course, coffee, which is never in these places fantastic, but sometimes does the trick.

Even though I don’t need to, I always look at the menu, and for two reasons. One is because, as I already said, you never know. A Greek-owned diner will have moussaka, but you wouldn’t know Greeks own it until you look at the menu. I’ve never had moussaka for breakfast, but it’s a good thing to know that you could if you wanted. In the south, grits, you bet, but not just the south. You can get grits in Hatboro. If you see chorizo sausage in a diner, get it, for no other reason than because diners have had chorizo before chorizo was a thing.

So on this, my first morning in Cincinnati, I sat at a counter and retrieved the menu from its metal clasp behind the salt/pepper/sugar/sugar-substitute caddy. In the list of sides of breakfast meats I saw bacon, ham, Canadian bacon, sausage links, and sausage patties. And “goetta.”

Goetta. Hello.

In all my days I had never seen the letters of my native language arranged in this order. I stared at this word and slowly a smile crept across my face. I placed the menu down softly and looked up. Even though I didn’t know what goetta was, I knew I would order goetta. Anything on a menu I’ve never had is what I will order, and that’s the second reason I always look at the menu.

Getting into goetta

The crisp waitress, having already come by with the coffeepot as soon as I sat down, greeting me with, “Coffee?” (I said yes, and it was good...“no way,” I whispered to the cup), now came back.

“What can I get you?” She spoke in that welcoming Kentucky recitative, her question starting high on “What,” descending to “get,” and flipping back up again on “you.”

“Two scrambled eggs, French toast, and...,” taking a stab at saying “goetta,” said, “goat-uh? What is that?” I pointed to the list of meats.

She looked up from her receipt book. “Gedda.” Then she said, thoughtfully, “It’s meat....”

“It’s” descended to “meat,” which went down and then up again, but stopping before it went as high as I thought it might. Her voice trailed off, signaling that whatever she was considering saying next was either too wonderful for me to grasp, or too difficult for her to relive. But the coffee had put me in an expansive mood, so in as encouraging a tone as I could muster, I said, “Uh-huh.”

Emboldened, she continued. “It’s ground beef,” she hesitated. “And ground pork,” halting again. “And,” running out of steam, she tried another angle, asking flatly, “Ever had scrapple?”

My eyes lit up. “Oh yes,” I answered helpfully, “I’m from Philadelphia, and I love scrapple!” This really doesn’t follow logically, since half of Philadelphians can’t stand scrapple.

“Well then,” she said, recovering her professional assurance, “you’ll like goetta.”

“Great!” I said, remembering as she turned, “and a small grapefruit juice?”

“Sure thing,” she said over her shoulder.

And it was great. Goetta is a lighter tan than scrapple, with a milder, earthy spice. Oat grains, instead of corn meal, hold it together, making it chewier. I later discovered that half of Cincinnatians can’t stand goetta. I felt at home.

The grapefruit juice factor

That week I loved other Cincinnati foods: Graeter’s ice cream, and spaghetti layered with cheddar-blanketed chili, oyster crackers on the side, who knew? Whenever I’m anywhere, I look for the things that are there and not anywhere else.

I look for that in live music, too. There’s always that grapefruit juice factor, something that you only get in a concert. At the second Canticle concert, at a section beginning with the words, “The little white dove has returned to the ark with an olive branch,” the choir hit a new level of honesty and intensity. I knew the music, of course, but I warmed inside at the commitment and love of these singers and this conductor.

And just then — right there, at those words — a bird started singing, loudly and liquidly and beautifully, outside an open window of the church. Beaming, incredulous smiles broke over the singers’ faces. I thought they would stop singing; the bird was that loud. We talked about it later, struggling for words. Audience members thought I had added a birdsong recording, like the one in The Pines of Rome; they told me that, I’m serious.

Something always catches you in a concert, if you pay attention. Performers glow with love or they beam at words that go deeper than we know. In your own piece, you think you know what happens next, but, well.... You order scrambled eggs, and a bird sings. A diner is just a diner, but sometimes you say “no way” to a cup of coffee, and sometimes there’s goetta, and sometimes, as I said, you just never know.

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