Maybe you are walking down the street. Maybe it is a fall morning and the crimson maple leaves are blowing in circles in the gutters in the light breeze and the sky is cracking blue and it is Saturday and even though it is still too early for the hung-over college students to be rousing, you are already done for the day.
For you being done for the day means you already have your run in, a pleasing 12 mile jog-trot around the East and West River Roads at daybreak, easy for you at a pace that is impossible for 99% of the population on their best day, pressing only the last 4 miles, and then the last two with the pedal to the metal and you flattened the hill up from the river to Middlebrook Hall. It’s a cold, clear day and as you run the gray of first light gives way to a full-on Technicolor fall morning that feeds the soul machine.
And now you are stretched and showered, kicking it down the empty street past the student slum-rentals, off to get something in your belly, off to get something to eat. Every cell in your body is crying “feed me” and that is what you are off to do. The hunger you feel is like nothing else you are going to feel again in your life. Starving isn’t the word. It’s a big, gnawing empty vacuum that nature abhors, a hollow that is equal parts stomach and psyche, a hole that is only caused by burning a thousand-plus calories in an hour and twelve minutes.
Approaching the literal hole in the wall (OK, it’s a roofed alleyway), things are looking good. You are early enough that there is nobody lined up waiting outside on the sidewalk like there will be in two hours because it is a game day and the civilized slackers and the loyal alumni will be finally awake. Later, it means an hour wait, easy. You swing through the latching street door and then through the screen into the dimly lit ten-foot tunnel that is an improbable place for a restaurant.
Al’s Breakfast. Fourteen stools on a yellowed Formica counter with just enough standing room behind the stools for a single file and the scent of breakfast cooking – bacon and eggs poached in pungent vinegar water, crisp-fried hashbrown potatoes, waffles and omlettes. Brewed coffee. And pancakes. Blueberry buttermilk pancakes, the best damn flapjacks in the whole wide world. Seriously. Maybe you think it’s funny to get all emotional about pancakes, but when your body fat is the limit as it approaches zero and you just took out a caloric jumbo-loan, pancakes are pure currency. And Al’s serves up the gold standard.
You take your place in line and there are maybe 8 or 10 people ahead of you, waiting for a stool to open on the counter. Not bad you think. Just when you think you should try to snag a StarTribune because you might be waiting a while, somebody gets up down at the end of the row, a single empty stool, a lost soul. Grina the fry-cook/owner marches down the working side of the counter, snatches the few greenbacks left in payment, looks up and points unexpectedly at you. “Single,” he shouts, the volume of his voice stuck on “Holler.” Somehow, you are up. A stroke of luck, a minor miracle.
As you sit down a coffee cup immediately appears and a multiply-pierced young lady with jet black hair and no bra pours your coffee which you mix with cream and sugar. You can’t help but stare and order the usual, two poached eggs on corned beef hash smothered with a half order of hollandaise, a side of hashbrowns, and “long blues” aka four plate-sized blueberry buttermilk pancakes with a largish dollop of softened smearing butter that begins to melt on contact. That oughta do. The bra-less wonder rolls her eyes at your caloric overload of an order and croaks “poach two on CBH with half a holly. Hashbrowns. Long blues. For a single.” Grina, now back at his grill station, shouts the order back in confirmation. “Hey,” you tell her half-apologizing, “I’m hungry.” You leave out the part about your 1500 calorie run. Her squinting reply tells you to um, get lost. Loser.
In mere moments your food appears, even before you can read the preview of the Gopher game that afternoon, a sure loss of Little Brown Jug to the Michigan Wolverines. You poke into the perfect egg, poached like a pure white Titleist in vinegar-laced poaching water and the yolk runs out over the corned beef. The hollandaise is splendid, a thick emulsification of yolk and butter heavily spiked with lemon. No grainy, tasteless Knorrs mix here. You eat the eggs and hash first, but poke your fork into the pancakes to let the melting butter seep into the holes along with the maple syrup.
Of course, food is not the only reason you are here, although on any given morning it might be reason enough. Al’s exerts a magnetic draw that is equal parts buttermilk flapjacks, iconoclastic roots music, 60-watt lighting, celebrity patrons, and unapproachable, unencumbered servers. It is hollering short order cooks who have lost their hearing but retain their sense of humor. It’s as much the spirit-lifting experience as it is the cellular sustenance. Musically, Al’s was a splendid crap shoot, depending on who was rolling the musical dice. Chances are that on a fall day in 1983 Bob Dylan would be on the tape deck, something like Blood on the Tracks with Peter Oshtrusko’s weeping mandolin, or John Wesley Harding or Highway 61 Revisited. Another day Tom Petty might suggest that You Don’t Have to Live Like a Refugee. I heard the Replacement’s “Hootenany” for the first time at Al’s and it’s entirely possible that I was sitting next to a member of the band that day (Tommy Stinson). I especially recall one day in particular, a steaming weekday morning in late May when the special was blackberry banana pancakes and the deck was blasting the Grace Jones “Private Lives”. I don’t know if it was the pancakes or Grace’s cover of Petty’s “Breakdown” that brought me to my knees, but it the end it doesn’t matter now does it?
On this day though, owner-cook Dougie Grina marches down the counter, slotted spoon in hand, glancing at the orders written in short order code on small notepads before each diner. He gets down to your end of the row and stands in front of you, his greasy apron wrapped around his waist, a worn ‘Mats t-shirt stretched over a then-ample gut. He squints. “You,” he hollers his voice stuck at its single volume. “I saw that race you ran. That was a helluva a run.” You look up at Grina, your mouth full of egg and hollandaise and corned beef. “Last May. That race. You won.” Grina seldom speaks in sentences longer than two words. You have been in Al’s maybe 20 times since that day in May when you learned to fly and everything changed and Grina has never once before so much as acknowledged your existence. Until now. He leans in and shakes a slotted spoon in your face. “That was a helluva race!” He grabs your bill, wads it up and throws in on the floor, turns heel and storms back to the grill, saying not a word more. In two hundred visits to Al’s over the last five years you have never seen Grina pick up a bill and you will never see it again.
Amazed, you sit and finish your eggs and hashbrowns and pancakes, eating until your stomach says no mas. The waitress picks up the bill Grina crumpled and throws it away, now regarding you with a certain curiosity. A graying middle-aged guy two stools away from you pays his bill and gets up to go. He grabs a worn letter jacket of the hook behind him and before he leaves he reaches into his coat wallet and produces two game tickets and hands them to you. “Here, take these,” he says. You vaguely recognize him, but can’t place the face. You thank him and then he is gone. In a few minutes you get up and go yourself and now the line to Al’s is out the door and down the block, a mixed crowd of hung-over students, tweedy literature professors, and alumni reliving glory days. The sun is higher in the sky but not yet at zenith, and now the day is laid out ahead. Tomorrow will be another day and the alarm will ring and you will head out again on another run. Drain the well and refill.
For me food and eating is about a lot more than a calorie in and a calorie out. Life is impossibly short and we can only celebrate the fleeting moments we have. You can celebrate how you want, but me? I celebrate with food.
Recently, I re-read for the umpteenth time Ernest Hemingway’s fact/fiction memoir “A Moveable Feast” which he prefaces by saying that “if you were lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” The trick is, find your Paris.
Then you’ve got it made.
Al’s Breakfast Blueberry Buttermilk Pancakes
1 heaping cup flour
1 heaping tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1.5 cups buttermilk
2 tbs melted butter
mix dry ingredients well. Add egg and buttermilk and mix well. Add butter. Let batter sit overnight (this is key). Pour cakes onto buttered griddle and scatter blueberries onto each pancake. Top with soft butter and maple syrup.