Rice pudding in the land of quilted steel

Today’s Zippy takes us to the Schuyler Diner (500 Schuyler Ave.) in Lyndhurst NJ (20 miles west of Manhattan), where Zippy and Griffy debate quilted steel while on the prowl for rice pudding: diner chic. And the diner staff are sore pressed (“Sometimes I think I shall go mad”, one cries out, literarily.)


The actual diner, at night:


Quilted steel. Quilted stainless steel walls make a diner look sleek, shiny, and modern(e). Not just diners. From the BusyBoo site on 5/14/14, “San Francisco Designer Showcase Kitchen: Quilted Kitchen” by Denise Hopkins, quoted here in full so you can appreciate the build-up to the last, quilted, paragraph:


If you’re dreaming of a kitchen that would make any chef happy and is super stylish, this is it. This kitchen/family room by Butler Armsden Architects for a San Francisco decorator show house is functional luxury. Maple floors set the ground rules for the shimmering space. Their coffee with cream color is picked up in the seats of the sleek and low brushed stainless island stools.

White laminate Poggenpohl cabinets form the island, an L-shape of base cabinets, and a full height wall of storage. The limited number of wall cabinets is floating away from the wall with lights behind for pure kitchen drama. Their frosty glass fronts lift up and out of the way with the touch of a long stainless pull.

The deep lagoon black of the mirror stone counters is like a classic little black dress or perfectly fitted tuxedo. Stainless steel sinks, dishwasher, range hood, refrigerators, and a stove I covet are seamlessly tailored in to the room. The pot filler is any cook’s dream.

Yet with all of these stunning appliances and gorgeous storage, my hands-down favorite element is the quilted stainless steel walls. The softness, interest, and texture they provide are only surpassed by their gentle and dynamic reflection of light that really brings the space to life.

Rice pudding. Background from Wikipedia:

Rice pudding is a dish made from rice mixed with water or milk and other ingredients such as cinnamon and raisins. Different variants are used for either desserts or dinners. When used as a dessert, it is commonly combined with a sweetener such as sugar. Such desserts are found on many continents, especially Asia where rice is a staple. Some variants are thickened only with the rice starch, others include eggs, making them a kind of custard.

… Rice pudding is mentioned frequently in literature of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, typically in the context of a cheap, plain, familiar food, often served to children or invalids, and often rendered boring by too-frequent inclusion in menus.

But in the hands of a good diner cook, this simple dish can triumph over pie. Or so Sam Worley argued on 6/29/16 in an entertaining posting on the epicurious site, “The Last Good Diner Dessert: Good diner pie only exists in the movies. Real diner devotees know rice pudding’s where it’s at” (quoted in full here for its vigorous trashing of diner pie):

(#4) epicurious diner-style rice pudding

Diner dreams die hard when it’s time for dessert. In a whoosh, there goes that cinema idyll of the perfect pie: the mile-high meringue, the as-American-as apple filling. Here comes the saccharine reality: gooey canned stuff, cardboard crusts, everything looking a bit long in the tooth. It’s ironic in Morrissettian sense: something bad happening to you when you’d really rather something good happen. It’s like 10,000 spoons when all you need is a decent banana cream. I’m embarrassed by how many times I’ve been taken in, only to stop eating after just a bite. There was that little restaurant somewhere in Utah, that diner in western Illinois. It always seemed like such a good idea.

What happened to the diner pie that anybody actually wanted to eat? Did it ever exist, outside of Twin Peaks? (For the record, the real-life analogue of the Twin Peaks pie has received undermining praise: “actually pretty damn good for a diner.”) Pastry chef Paula Haney felt so nostalgic for good pie that she just went ahead and opened her own pie shop: Chicago’s Hoosier Mama Pie Company, where I worked for a few years, rolling shells and peeling rhubarb. The shop bills its offerings as “that great piece of diner pie you’ve never had.”

The pie problem was analyzed in 2013 by Robert Sietsema, who sampled the stuff at 10 Manhattan diners, declaring the results “generally awful.” (The article is headlined “The Death of Pie.”) Sietsema thinks this reflects the decline of the diner itself, but also the fact that our tastes have changed as options have expanded: Once upon a time, pie (even crappy pie) might’ve nonetheless been the best thing available. Now we can just go elsewhere. And it probably doesn’t help matters that most diners don’t make their desserts in-house anymore.

But there’s a holdout — don’t say salvation — still available on some diner menus: rice pudding. I ate it just last night at Tom’s Restaurant in Brooklyn, where it was the lone dessert to advertise itself (a bit conspicuously) as “homemade.” Diner rice pudding has a cult following that appreciates its status as the last old-school holdout on the diner dessert menu.

But not just any rice pudding will do. As Michael C. Gabriele, author of The History of Diners in New Jersey wrote in an email: “I may not be an authority, but I do know how I like my rice pudding. It’s gotta be fresh, cold, creamy and just a little bit sweet. The rice should be smooth and soft— a completely different texture than a side order of rice in a Chinese restaurant. It’s nice if the rice pudding has a thin top skin.” Topped with whipped cream. Dash of cinnamon. Lucky for us, these are goals that most diners are able to achieve.

Rice pudding most likely started showing up on diner menus in the 1920s, says Richard J.S. Gutman, who is, quite enviably, probably the country’s preeminent expert on diners. (He wrote the book The American Diner Then and Now.) “Because it is a homemade type of item, it became very popular,” he said — the perfect complement to the roast pork, or meat loaf and mashed potatoes, that were then popular diner fare. Somehow it remained homemade even as diners began ordering in their mile-high meringue pies and 7-layer fudge cakes.

One reason diners keep making it themselves? Unlike pie, it’s almost effortless to make a good batch from scratch. “It’s a standard, it’s a staple, people love it,” says Gutman. “People don’t think twice about it, yet if it weren’t there, people would say, ‘What’s the matter? You gotta have it.’” And if you’ve got to have it for tonight’s dinner, there’s just one thing to do.

Make it yourself. The epicurious recipe for diner-style rice pudding, from September 1999, uses short-grain rice, milk, eggs (it’s a custard-style pudding), sugar, salt, and for flavoring: vanilla extract, ground cinnamon, raisins, (optional) unsulfured molasses. Simple, silky, creamy, subtly spicy, slightly sweet.

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