May 4, 2012
I was down at the Fleetwood Diner eating their turkey dinner this week. It’s not that I’m stuck in off-season mode (like when I was writing about Halloween candy two weeks back). I eat turkey dinner at the Fleetwood every other month or so. I was really enjoying the dressing, gravy and cranberry sauce when it occurred to me that it was not that good. It was the green beans that made this occur to me, because they had clearly been dumped out of a freezer bag not long before being served. They were kind of rubbery and definitely not that good. I also had another piece of evidence, as the waitress had shouted back to the cook when I inquired about the vegetable of the day, and even he was unsure. Apparently they often get deep into the afternoon before someone asks about the vegetable of the day at the Fleetwood.
I’ve had the green beans at the Fleetwood when they were not rubbery and actually okay. But all of this is pointing to the fact that the Fleetwood is what I would call “ordinary good”. It’s not dozens of people waiting outside in the rain good. I tried to eat brunch at Hudson’s in Detroit this morning (never been there before), but from the looks of the crowd milling around on Woodward Ave. on a Sunday noontime when the rest of downtown is dead Hudson’s is wait outside for forty-five minutes good. It had cleared up by the time we were out hunting down a place to eat so I can’t vouch for the rain part.
The fact that a place has cooks rather than chefs may be a telling piece of evidence. I can’t make a judgement about the Hudson. Maybe they do have a chef. But the Fleetwood? It’s definitely cooks. And generally speaking they do a very credible job.
But there are these joints that are so good that you are just always going to have a wait to get in there. While the Fleetwood is ordinary good, these places are crazy good. We have one of those crazy good places here in Lansing but insiders all know that we’re not supposed to talk about it. So “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” and I think I’ll move right along from that one. I have to admit that I get to the Fleetwood three or four times for every visit to the place you’re not supposed to talk about—even though “don’t talk about XXX” is closer to my house. Although the food is crazy good and the ambiance is unique, I’m just more likely to head down to the Fleetwood Diner. It’s certainly crowded at times, but I don’t think I’ve ever had to wait more than five minutes to get my table.
So “ordinary good” is better than “crazy good”? It defies logic, I’ll admit. My economist friends would start talking about “transaction costs,” but I’ve sworn that kind of obscurity off (at least for this week). It reminded me of a cheeseburger I ate about three years ago down on the beach at Waikiki. And friends, when you can bring back fond memories of an ordinary cheeseburger, that is crazy good, indeed.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University