Why Diner Butter Is Just Better
The atavistic pleasure of properly slathered toast
There are so many beautiful sentences in the English language: “We will be arriving at the gate early.” “Your butt looks nice in that skirt.” “The 10 a.m. meeting has been cancelled.” But none come remotely near the one uttered by my waitress at the Tastee Diner in Bethesda, Maryland: “The toast comes buttered.”
Yes great! In fact, I’d would like my toast totally slathered in that substance hanging out next to your six-slice toaster, the pale yellow stuff flecked with the crumbs of all the toast that came before mine.
I’d like it to cover the burnt parts you thought I didn’t see when my toast came flying out of said toaster like so much popcorn. If I am feeling cheeky, I may marry it with some grape jelly excavated from a little plastic packet that is sitting in a monkey dish next to my incredibly awful coffee—which I would also like some more of right now, please.
Butter exists at the very core of Western cooking culture. European-style is best, I concede, for baking, and it pairs nicely with some sea salt and radishes on a fancy cocktail tray.
But there is a uniquely atavistic pleasure delivered by butter served in a diner, whether it’s scraped from one of those little plastic trays with the foil top, spread by the cook from the aforementioned counter blob, or pressed directly from a tiny pat affixed to a waxy piece of paper right into the toast and smeared across the surface, bypassing the needless knife.
“You’re not the only one thinking about the deliciousness of butter,” said Nehl Horton, a spokesman for Sysco, which produces and distributes several butters. Its own brand, Wholesome Farms, accounts for 60 percent of the food giant’s butter business—including that of the Tastee Diner. Wholesome Farms also makes up 52 percent of its “portion control” butter, better known to laypeople as those tiny little packets that sit next to your toast.
Sysco’s branded butters rock in particular, Mr. Horton claims, because, “They come with an additional level of food safety and quality assurance that we don’t provide on other brands of products.” Which means, in some part, that Wholesome Farms butter is never sold frozen, preserving its creaminess and texture.
But to the hungover, the starving, the new mom still awake at 5 a.m., the fresh from yoga, the underpaid, and other diner denizens, the serving temperature is the most crucial factor. It should, by all standards of taste and decency, be room temperature.
“The general rule here is that the less sanitary butter is, the more I like it,” notes my friend Pete, who eats for a living. I must strongly concur. My grandmother left her butter on the counter—a habit I picked up to the marginal disgust and fear of others, including a babysitter who for years kept putting it back in the fridge after I left for work.
I leave butter out all year, and sometimes it melts a bit by the window, or turns slightly sour and occasionally attracts a honey bee, which gets stuck and must be scraped away. Cold butter wrapped in foil served in bowl of ice seems elegant—romantic even—but in reality becomes an immovable glacier of fat, dragged disagreeably across a Parker House roll.
Because restaurants have higher health standards than, well, me, Pete worries a bit about butter waste. This is reasonable. We should all spend at least a few minutes a day wondering about butter-pat-salvaging best practices.
Sean Wilsey is the son of butter tycoon Alfred Wilsey. The younger’s very fine memoir, Oh the Glory of It All, reveals commercial butter terminology including “Pats on Mats with Hats on the Pats,” which are the little squares of waxed cardboard, wax-paper peel-off top butter, and “Filpers”: filled paper cups with with peel-off wax paper tops. He has his own thoughts.
“I think a lot of the pleasure of cheap diner butter is that it is already portioned,” Wilsey explains. “There's something about butter in a big stick that makes it difficult to get the right amount and apply accordingly.”
He also notes that, “Diner bread is less interesting, and so you focus more on the butter.” Fair.
As it turns out, the massive bricks that rest on Tastee’s countertop are in fact Ventura Foods Gold-n-Sweet margarine, which, due to its warmth from its proximity to the grill and particular yellowness, is a very fine match for my English muffin.
Of course diner butter has the associations of diners themselves, where hot food meets managed expectations, my personal definition of quotidian pleasure. My boyfriend tucked into a tuna melt cooked in that margarine on his birthday, which our waitress noted with some horror.
“I went to Australia for my birthday,” she said. “You came here!” Well, touché. Therein lies the chasm of our expectations about life and life itself. In the gaps rest buttered toast.
Jennifer Steinhauer is a writer of newspaper articles, cookbooks, and the occasional failed novel.