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Empire Falls, Richard Russo

Alfred A. Knopf, May 8, 2001

I’ll admit my taste is disputable, but epicurean challengers refuse to concede that the nuances in food flavors seethe beside the point. Arguing over whether scrambled eggs are better prepared slightly browned or runny instead with a hint of garlic and basil matters little to those of us masticating for survival. Regardless of how prepared, the nutrients in eggs—sustenance in general—sustain life, fulfilling the fundamental function of eating. Energy exhausted critiquing texture and spice crosses over into frivolity. Relishing the environment in which a plate is dished out, on the other hand, far outweighs inconsequential quibbles over gastronomic zest.

The Empire Grill was long and low-slung, with windows that ran its entire length, and since the building next door, a Rexall drugstore, had been condemned and razed, it was now possible to sit at the lunch counter and see straight down Empire Avenue all the way to the old textile mill and its adjacent shirt factory.

The establishments generating lasting impressions go by nicknames like greasy spoon, hole in the wall and hash house to name a few. More formally, they are called Rosie’s, The Short Stop, The Griddle and Christy’s. People gather inside, where menu creativity rates below a down-home atmosphere that is inviting, relaxed and open—sometimes twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, except on holidays. No shoes, no shirts, no service. Patrons wear clothes on their backs yet often carry only a couple of bucks in their wallets. They’d be loath to spend a dime anyplace else.

Most booths seat regulars, the folks who strike conversation with everyone in the room, if only by a wink and a friendly smile. Out-of-towners push the front glass door ajar, entering familiar confines hundreds of miles from a known acquaintance. Near the front window, it’s typical to see young children—a boy aged eleven and a girl of eight, for example—sharing a table with parents dressed in closely matching floral prints that clash against nearby peeling wallpaper, which is crispier than bacon and darker than aged cheddar. A bustling waitress with a pencil behind her ear and a book of order tickets in hand maneuvers a crowded floor, checking on every customer’s satisfaction, while students read books in isolated corners, and unshaven men in John Deere caps relax at the counter with cups of coffee and sections of the local paper scattered about. Incomplete newsprint crossword puzzles frequently rest at the top of a stack … no pen in sight.

The clanking of silverware on ceramic plates sounds steadily, ringing a constant reminder that victuals, forever managing to hit the spot in spite of … frankly, because of … their tasting ordinary, are served. The day’s best specials, one notes, cook away from the kitchen and constitute a mix of mostly unspoken personal stories that each person contributes to a stewing pot in the dining room. The exact same ingredients are never combined twice. Such tales are removed from pretense: a chat among friends, a son grieving the loss of a parent one year ago to the day, a family breakfasting on vacation, lovers enjoying a morning after, a recently unemployed laborer, an elderly widow acting in accordance to routine, a worker passing time before catching a train, people existing as part of a greater whole … in community. The town eats to exist but does not exist to eat.

… Empire Grill was a landmark, that it was the only non-fast-food establishment in town, and that Empire Falls, if its residents were to remain at all hopeful about the future, needed the grill to survive, even if it didn’t thrive.

On mornings when I splurge and dine out, I methodically seek these kinds of joints and their simple options for grumbling bellies. For breakfast: a glass of orange juice, wheat toast, two eggs—scrambled—pancakes and sausage. Please, no grape jelly or marmalade; it’s okay for the least discriminating to maintain a minimum standard. I slide into a booth alone but never feel lonely because hospitality is richly stocked on every pantry shelf. Meanwhile, friends patronize those Zagat rated bistros on a trendy streets for brunch over white linen tablecloths, extolling the innovative use of capers and unique blending of herbs, Portobello mushrooms, smoked salmon and caviar, washed down with bubbling Veuve Clicquot. They chew on their elite conversations and rave mouthwatering sensations, in a gluttonous desire to satiate the ego rather than appetite. They yak, spewing descriptors bordering on a foreign language, too consumed to notice the luscious samplings of humankind in non-caloric bounty around them let alone down the road in some unassuming pit stop.

After the bill is paid and a tip left between the glass salt and pepper shakers, I move on, never feeling bloated, overstuffed. The portions were just right, and I ponder how the time was the perfect way to start a day, contemplating where I have been—and excuse me if it seems improper, but, as I admitted from the onset, I’m known for an occasional bout of poor taste—not focusing on where the meal I just ate is going. May straightforward style never fall by the wayside to fussier fare.