When I was a kid, going out to a restaurant was not that big of a deal because my family did it a lot. I'm not talking about an extravagant, fancy place that required my dad to wear a tie and my mom to call ahead and make a reservation. My family most frequently ate at the Heritage Diner, an unassuming establishment just outside the confines of my Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood. My father — a staunch traditionalist, very set in his ways — ate breakfast there most mornings and it was always the same. So much so, that the waitresses knew what to bring without even taking an order. Two scrambled eggs, toast and coffee. Never — I repeat never! — would his breakfast platter ever include "home fries," as the sight of potatoes in the morning made my father nauseous. Fifteen cigarettes before 7 AM were just fine, but potatoes.....
Besides my father's solo, potato-less breakfasts, my family would often have our dinner at the Heritage Diner. The Heritage had standard diner fare — a menu the size of a small novel and a two-sided, typewritten page of "Daily Dinner Specials" that included soup or salad, choice two vegetables, bread and butter, a beverage and a limited selection of desserts — all for one low price. (Or so I imagined. The price of dinner didn't matter to me. I was a kid, after all. My dad was picking up the check.)
Eating at The Heritage during the week, the unspoken rule was to order a hamburger or a tuna sandwich or maybe an omelette. The "Daily Dinner Specials" were reserved for weekends, specifically Sunday. We had Sunday dinners at The Heritage probably twice a month. Those were the times when we were permitted to order off the "Daily Dinner Specials" menu. I would scan the two sides of that poorly typed sheet, reading each and every entry — even the ones I had no intention of ever ordering... which was most of them. I was always intrigued when my mom — after reading those enticing offerings — would tell the waitress that she would like liver. In my little mind, I would think to myself: You can have anything you want! Why would you order liver in a restaurant? That's like punishment! Once, I actually asked my mom why she always gets liver. She smiled and explained that she loves liver, but no one else in the family does (not even my dad — who was a butcher by trade). So restaurants presented the only opportunity she had to get liver. And she didn't have to cook it! Made perfect sense — even if the end result was a plate of liver.
I, however, usually ordered one of two entrees — alternating on alternate Sundays. Sometimes I would get roasted turkey because it reminded me of Thanksgiving. It came with a salad, which I would automatically slide over to my mom just as the waitress set the plate in front of me. It also included a baked potato, which I would eat (except for the skin) and (at my mother's insistence) string beans, which I would stare at. Alongside the mound of sliced turkey drenched in that unnaturally-yellow gravy, was a small souffle cup containing a dollop of cranberry sauce, which I also never ate. My other "go to" dinner was fried flounder, which was essentially a giant fish stick. It, too, came with a second salad for my mother, a serving of French fries and a liquidy bowl of cole slaw which I stared at like it was a bowl of string beans. One time, I think I may have asked for, as my two side orders, French fries and a baked potato.
The choices of available vegetables that the Heritage offered to accompany their "Daily Dinner Specials" read like "Nixon's Hit List," if it was compiled by an eight-year old. String beans, broccoli, a mixture of broccoli and cauliflower, peas, carrots, a mixture of peas and carrots, a mixture of peas, carrots and string beans, apple sauce, creamed spinach, French fries or a baked potato. This was food for old people. I suppose that was the target audience for the "Daily Dinner Specials." I guess whoever decided what would go on the "Daily Dinner Specials" each day presumed that any children along for the ride would order from the special children's menu (with its entrees whimsically-named in honor of cartoon characters and storybook heroes, presented along with a 6-pack of crayons and a ready-to-be-colored place mat). They knew darn well that no kid was asking Mom if it was okay to order creamed spinach.
But a funny thing happened. I grew up. And I grew up to surprise myself.
Lately, I found myself actually ordering broccoli in a restaurant. Broccoli! Me! Little Josh Pincus! Imagine! I have done this more than once, too. I have ordered peas and carrots. I have ordered cole slaw. I have even ordered string beans and eaten them. I honestly can't believe that so many foods I shunned as a child have become some of my favorites. I don't even pick the lettuce off of my (veggie) burger! Me! And I'll eat the skin from a baked potato. My mom was right! It is the best part.
I became a vegetarian in 2006. (Not a vegan, a vegetarian. If I was a vegan, you'd know it. Every blog post would be about me being a vegan.) Since then, I have eaten more vegetables than I ever had in my entire life. I've even become more adventurous, venturing out into the world of succotash, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, Harvard beets, artichokes.... and enjoying every one of them. Okay, maybe not Brussels sprouts so much. Because I am a vegetarian, I won't order liver in a restaurant, but, I no longer pass the salad off to someone else.
My mom would be proud.