Mercifully this TV documentary on BBC4 was not a programme about gastronomy. On the menu instead was a cultural study of the all-American Diner, an institution that came into being at around the same time as the motor car and developed a unique significance in the American collective consciousness. Offering massive portions of high-calorie food from roadside premises to the working man and the weary traveller alike, diners became a theatre where all levels of American society could rub shoulders, where Hank Williams might have found himself next to Raymond Chandler. The solitary itinerant could preserve his anonymity while the sociable could share each other’s company in garrulous badinage each according to their particular behavioural code.
Attention became focused on the diner as the rapid expansion of fast-food chains in the 60s and 70s forced many of them out of business. As an endangered species they suddenly ceased to be taken for granted and, in the early 70s acquired an official historian (Richard C Guttman) and a court painter (John Baeder). Both took part in this programme in contrasting fashion. Guttman displayed the spritely enthusiasm of the born conservator while Baeder, who has a wider interest in all aspects of the American roadside, presented himself as a man on a mission to record the vanishing glories and architectural eccentricities before they are swept away by the triumphal advance of corporate monotony. Baeder’s participation was a special treat. Enveloped in his studio by a dazzling assortment of model vehicles, ephemera and memorabilia, he sat at his easel dispassionately applying minute and precise brushstrokes to his photorealist paintings.
Later, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks came under discussion. Over the last three decades Hopper’s painting has rapidly expanded in the American popular imagination as a defining emblem of the deep existential isolation to be found in the shadow of the American Dream. It’s a fine painting but when it’s suggested that it might be the greatest American painting of the last century it seems like too much weight for it to carry. Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker and author of an excellent book on Wayne Thiebaud, was on hand to offer a roadmap of America’s “melancholic underside”. Later still, photographer Stephen Shore joined the party, commenting on his images of a personal pilgrimage along the American highway in search of the overlooked and ignored aspects of daily life. For me, Shore’s most brilliant photographs were taken out on the street, usually at intersections, at the very instant when the banal and quotidian is suddenly and momentarily transformed into a tableau of heroic magnificence. The programme presenter, Stephen Smith, tested the legendary tolerance and good humour of New Yorkers almost to destruction by interrogating passers-by on the location of Hopper’s Nighthawks but this was the only moment of tedium in what was otherwise an absorbing sixty minutes of television. Finally I would have liked to accompany this with a selection of postcard images of the finest in diners but, lacking the income of a Russian oligarch makes them unaffordable. So we must make do with some lesser American eating places and some examples of exquisite interior decoration.