Did you encounter Adam and Eve on a raft this morning? Or perhaps it was two chicks looking at you with Noah’s boy? If you did, you were having breakfast in one of the few remaining establishments in which the staff still uses the once ubiquitous but now rapidly fading diner slang.
Adam and Eve on a raft is a way of saying two poached eggs on toast, and two chicks looking at you with Noah’s boy is two eggs fried straight up with a slice of ham.
Other breakfast items might include cackleberries (eggs), which could be blindfolded (basted), flopped (over easy), deadeye (poached), or wrecked (scrambled). They could be served on a log (with link sausage), or instead, the waitress might tell the chef two spots and a dash (two fried eggs with bacon). And of course you’d accompany them with a blonde in the sand (coffee with cream and sugar).
A lot of diner slang is associated with breakfast, but such other staple items as stew (Bossy in a bowl, clean the kitchen, sweep the floor, or customer will take a chance) come in for their share of colorful language.
Burn one means a well-done hamburger, or, if really well done, a hockey puck. Walk a cow through the garden means a hamburger with lettuce, tomato, pickles, and onion. Or the waitress might say Two cows—make ‘em cry, paint ‘em red, and drag ‘em through Wisconsin, but keep off the grass—which would mean two hamburgers, with onions, ketchup, and American cheese, but no lettuce.
The Old Testament provides a wealth of diner slang. In addition to the previously mentioned Adam and Eve and Noah’s boy, Eve with a lid on means apple pie and Eve with a moldy lid is apple pie with cheese. First lady is an order of spare ribs (since Eve was made from Adam’s rib, right?). And kill Lot’s wife would have to mean hold the salt.
Noah’s boy, by the way, might be ordered with Murphy carrying a wreath, which would mean ham with potatoes and cabbage.
Other colorful bits of lingo include foreign entanglements (spaghetti), put the lights out and cry (liver and onions), burn the British (toasted English muffin), dough well done with cow to cover (buttered toast), zeppelins in a fog (sausage with mashed potatoes), shingle with a shimmy (toast and jelly), and the ultimate commentary on a diner’s taste, why bother (decaffeinated coffee with non-fat milk).
The origin of diner slang, and the reasons for it, are uncertain. Most authorities conclude it started in U. S. eateries in the 1880s, probably as an inside joke among African-American waiters and cooks, partly for amusement and partly as easily understood mnemonic devices. Such a usage as whiskey down for “rye toast” probably originated as a means of being quickly and clearly understood in the clamor of a busy kitchen.
Some diner terms, like mayo, BLT, and short stack (two pancakes), began as specialized lingo, but have now entered the general vocabulary.
Diner argot is dying out for a variety of reasons. The prevalence of franchised fast-food establishments with limited, regimented menus (hamburgers, pizza, chicken) has seen the disappearance of the all-purpose diners that served many different kinds of short-order foods. Further, restaurant personnel consisting of short-term student help and immigrants for whom English is not a native language make the use of slang unlikely.
But here and there, “retro” diners are springing up, fashioned like the shining railway cars of the past, and maybe their personnel will try to keep diner slang alive, along with the juke boxes and chrome trim.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou rarely eats in diners, preferring to take his nourishment from a bottle. He writes, incoherently, from some sordid den of unspeakable iniquity:
The cook is in the diner,
And the cow is in the corn.
The sheep is in the meadow,
And the snail is on the thorn.
The fox is in the henhouse,
And the pea is in the pod,
The cream is in the coffee,
And the bricks are in the hod.
The lark is on the wing,
And the butter’s on the bread,
The sun has crossed the yardarm,
And The Bard is still in bed.