The Idle American

“Greasy Spoon” lingo


They were called “greasy spoons,” those folksy diners of yesteryear. Printed menus were limited, but waitpersons had their slang menu “down pat.” The one I remember best had a single line of stools, and patrons typically waited in outdoor lines for weekday “lunch runs.”

Admittedly, I’ve already used this week’s quota of quotation marks, but strong in my memory is how the “waitperson” yelled food orders to the nearby cook, who had to be “quick on the uptake” of verbal orders.

The system has given way to numbers, and this is regrettable. Numbers can include various cadences, of course, but words can sing, rhyme and humor, sometimes all in the same food order.

My memory dredges up the “Yellow Squeeze Inn,” long since closed, but a “hopping place” in the 1930s and 1940s.

The Brownwood eatery had a yellow storefront, and was perhaps the “narrowest” business ever. Stools stretched single file, front door to kitchen. The walkway between the stools and wall was little more than a yardstick wide.

Patrons entering as others exited could--and did--sometimes get caught in “squeezes” that warranted stares, if not an urgent need for a crowbar. Thus the “Yellow Squeeze Inn” name, I guess.

Casting a giant shadow in the diner was Maggie, the waitress who seemed ever present. She was into verbal jousting with the clientele, most of whom were men. She “out-jousted” most of ‘em.

A majority ordered a “bowl a’ chili,” but Maggie had several names for it. Heading the list was “bowl of red,” with an addendum of “in a hat” if it happened to be take-out.

Those passing on chili typically ordered hamburgers, and Maggie had a long list of instructions for the cook. “Make it cry” meant, as one would guess, “add onions.” Variations for hamburger preparation numbered into the dozens.

Old-time diner orders came back into focus recently as I stood in a sandwich line. The guy in front of me wanted every possible vegetable on his hamburger, naming some veggies repeatedly.

The lady taking the order was old school. That’s what her instructions to the cook suggested, anyway. “Drag it through the garden,” said she.

Upon reaching home, I found the “” website, and sure enough, “drag it through the garden” is an old term.

It was enlightening to find hundreds of colorful terms heard in diners. One was “Adam’s ale, hold the hail.” This meant, of course, a glass of water without ice. “Belly cheat” is diner slang for apron.

It’s worth an Internet visit for readers of a certain age. Some of the terms are worth repeating; some of ‘em aren’t. Many are obvious, but some are cleverly finessed.

Several I’d never heard, such as “Bronx vanilla,” garlic; “cluck and grunt,” eggs and bacon; “hamlette,” omelette with ham; “make it moo,” add cream; “nervous pudding,” jello; “on the hoof,” rare; “wrecked and crying,” scrambled eggs with onions, and “wimpy,” which, of course, refers to hamburgers.

“Wimpy” was a character in the popular Popeye cartoons, and it also is the name of a well-known ‘burger chain founded in the 1930s.

All this talk about dining brings to mind late comedian Jerry Clower, whose bulk suggested he was fond of food. He joked about an early diner visit for breakfast. “How do you like your eggs?” the waitress asked. “I like ‘em fine,” he responded, and, asked how many: “I wouldn’t ‘yeller’ up my mouth for less than a dozen.”

While paying the cashier, he noticed a small open toothpick holder. He started using one, and perceived a glare from the lady at the register. Fearing he had violated “diner etiquette,” he quickly deposited the toothpick back in the holder, commenting, “I guess you thought I was going to walk out of here with that toothpick without paying for it,” he said.

Dr. Don Newbury is a speaker in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Contact Don by email: or phone: (817) 447-3872. Website:


Special Sections