Many of us are about to sit down for our most traditional meal of the year: turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie. Substitutes are frowned upon on Thanksgiving. And so, this morning I would like to write about that other traditional American meal in which substitutes are “verboten”: The Blue Plate Special.
I was introduced to this American institution at about the age of nine. I was “helping” my father at his Midwestern Hosiery Company one Saturday morning. Well, in actuality Mom had deposited me there so she could attend a lengthy ladies’ luncheon. When lunchtime finally came, Dad said, “Let’s go get a blue plate special.”
I was immediately bumfuzzled. I assumed Dad had lost his mind, and we were going to some fine china place to look for a special blue plate. At age nine, I looked forward to shopping for china as much as a turkey looks forward to Thanksgiving. So I was relieved when we pulled into the parking lot of good old Sam’s Subway, our favorite Jewish delicatessen. Obviously, I thought we’d be searching for the dumb china later, on a full stomach.
Once we were seated, I told Dad how happy I was to eat lunch before shopping for the special blue plate. No, Elliot,” he laughed, “a blue plate special is a meal. And he promptly ordered us two of them without even naming what we wanted to eat. That was weird. It arrived quickly on a plate that I’d seen every day in my elementary school cafeteria. It was one with three separate sections for parts of the meal, like a three-sectioned TV dinner that I thought back then was ever so cool.
I stared at it. “But, Dad,” I exclaimed as if I were a mini Sherlock Holmes making an astonishing discovery, “The plate’s not blue!”
“Oh,” said Dad, covering his mouth with his hand. “The meal is named for the chef who just prepared it—Chef Blueplate.”
Even at age nine, I knew that we were in a delicatessen, and I knew a non-Jewish name when I heard one. Like Chef Boyardee. “Is Chef Blueplate not Jewish?”
And now Dad’s hand came down from his mouth, and there was the telltale mischievous grin that told me I had just been played by his telltale tall-tale whopper. My dad did not have twinkling eyes; instead he had a twinkle on each side of his playful, prankish, upturned lips. That smile was one of the gazillion reasons I loved him. I told myself that I’d never be suckered that easily again by Dad, no siree.
So in we dug to our deli feast: tender corned beef brisket in the center section with juicy flavorsome gravy, along with German potato salad and hot sauerkraut in the two smaller sections. No, I was not a sauerkraut connoisseur, but the first time I saw my older sister, Gloria, sniff it and then wrinkle up her nose in disgust and refuse to taste it, I suddenly decided that sauerkraut was my ambrosia of the gods — just to spite her.
“See how your sweet little brother will eat anything!” my mom happily chirped. It was glorious when I saw Gloria wrinkle her entire face, more than I thought humanly possible, at Mom’s remark. “Score!”
On our drive back to work, I asked Dad why they called it a “blue plate special” when the plate was all white. “I don’t know, Elliot,” he said, but do you remember how we can find out?”
I did. Dad had a friend, Miss Turner, who worked as the reference librarian for our Indiana State Library in downtown Indianapolis. Dad had gone to high school with her mother, now Mrs. Tilda Turner, who was our neighbor. Her librarian daughter treated Mom and Dad as an honorary aunt and uncle.
So when Dad called her at work for an answer when we returned from eating, she said she’d call right back. Within thirty minutes she reported that when restaurants first tried blue plate specials, diner owners worried that with no substitutes allowed and such a cheap price, customers might think they were eating a cut-rate meal. At that time, Spode fine china had just released an elegant pattern called “Blue Willow.” And so the special was originally served in compartmental plates that had a similar blue willow pattern on them, indicating upscale dining. Instant hit.
“Does Miss Turner know EVERYTHING, Dad?”
“No, son, but she knows how to find out about everything. Her mother is very proud of her.”
“That’s our friend Mrs. Turner, right, Dad?”
“Right. You know, Elliot, Miss Turner the librarian has a first name too.”
“What is it?”
Then Dad’s radiant, twinkling smile.
Elliot says: "I’d love to hear from you if you have any experiences with blue plate specials and/or with “special” relatives who were loving teasers like my dad — or even dreadful ones."
Email Elliot at firstname.lastname@example.org or click here.