What I learned from Cooking at Woolworth’s Diner

There is a surefire way to make people happy. Cook for them. Help them figure out the menu, tell them of new and exciting dishes, and serve the food when it is hot.

I fell in love with cooking when I was nine; by the autumn of my senior year in high school I was so enamored of flipping burgers and making milkshakes, it was worth whatever punishment I risked by forging my mom’s signature on a typed letter to school officials that said, “Peggy has to work. Please excuse her from classes on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 12:30pm.” Let’s just say that at age 17 I was not as honest as the day was long.

So I left school to cook. I begged for the lunch counter job, otherwise I’d be sent to do a really unpleasant job, like clean the fish tanks and straighten up the artificial flowers, or rearrange the ghastly messy teen makeup aisle, putting the lipsticks, eyeliners and blush back where they belonged.

One afternoon a very weary older couple came in around 3:00. They wanted something, they had just arrived in the area from a long road trip, but they didn’t want to spoil their dinner appetites. They debated the menu but just couldn’t figure it out. The decision had the weight of gold bars.

“Why don’t you split a chicken salad sandwich?” I offered. “With potato chips?” They lit up. To me, it was just too obvious, even if it was white bread, no-nutrition iceberg lettuce slathered with mayo and a handful of chips. Efficiency at the lunch counter usually won out over taste.

On Saturdays my girlfriends came in at peak times and occupied a lineup of stools. They pounded their forks and knives on the counter demanding attention. “Where’s my milkshake?” “Can’t you hurry up?” “My fries are getting cold. Where’s the catsup?” “Oopsie, my fork fell on the floor.” Getting all this attention made me feel popular, as did the nickname I earned that stuck: “Woo-Woo,” a sort of fusion of my last name, Wolff, and the name of the infamous five-and-dime.

If Freud was right when he said we can only be truly happy when our childhood ambitions are fulfilled, then I must be one truly content person to still be cooking today.

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