My older brother Shefa is eccentric. When he calls me from his home in Vancouver, British Columbia to say he’s flying to Italy — but wants to stop in Boston and drive to Hanover, New Hampshire to write an article about his high school baseball coach named Michael Jackson — I take it in stride.
We spent a good chunk of our youth in Hanover, but it’s been 15 years since he’s been back and he says, “It’s a good opportunity to write about diner food.” Flash forward a few weeks and Shefa is in Boston but Coach Jackson is out of town. Shefa tries to talk me out of the trip but I’m on deadline now thanks to him. We’re going.
Renting a car we head north in a foreboding downpour. Our relationship with the Upper Valley is complicated. The pertinent facts: My parents are American but for the better part of the ‘70s and ‘80s, the Siegels lived in Vancouver. My brothers grew up as city kids, 11 and nine years older than me, the beyond adorable tag-along.
In 1987, my father took a position at Dartmouth College and my brothers finished high school in the deep woods. It was a tough transition for them. Too young to know the difference, I spent winters up to my neck in snow and summers rope-swinging into the Connecticut River — until high school, when we moved to West Roxbury.
Shefa asks where we should go first. “Harry’s,” I say without hesitation. The truck stop is now called The Fort, but to me and I suspect most, it will always be known by its old namesake. When I was very little, my dad would bring me to Harry’s. We’d sit in a non-smoking booth and order eggs and potatoes. I think my father, the displaced New Yorker, missed diners. For me, it was all about white bread. We ate only whole wheat at home and I hated it.
Vinyl booths line the walls here while a horseshoe laminate counter occupies the middle of the room. We plant ourselves on two stools bolted to the floor. I’m in full Somerville hipster uniform: tight jeans, beard, glasses and beanie. For the first time in my life I wonder if my outfit’s too showy.
Black tea for me, coffee for my brother. I order the country breakfast ($8.95), two eggs over-medium with home fries, bacon and white toast. Simple comforts. My brother skips the extra starch and the swine, getting two eggs and wheat toast ($4.40).
A few old timers sit around the counter. The waitress, middle aged with flirtatious grace, asks one, “How you doin’?” “Nobody knows,” he says. I suspect she’s heard it before. She asks if we’re twins. We look alike, and even though Shefa’s nine years older people often think he’s younger. I get it. He maintains a youthful appearance because he’s never had a real job. “I bet you guys are best friends,” she says. Depends on the week.
It’s still raining when we hop back in the car and drive to our old street, where our neighbor, a roofer named Vick, would smoke Reds and drink Bud on his deck. A master of language economy, he abbreviated everyone’s name to a syllable. Across the street lived the Finigan kids, whose mom was a teacher’s aid. She’d drive me to school on the many mornings I missed the bus. Next door lived a woman in her 70s; her name escapes me. Once, she hired me to clear brush in her backyard, feeding me rhubarb crumble with vanilla ice cream. She paid me exactly one dollar. Our house is painted a different color (and someone changed the locks), but otherwise it’s the same. We find this to be true throughout Hanover, a college town playing home to Ivy Leaguer Dartmouth.
Our second breakfast takes place at The Four Aces, a boxcar diner with wooden booths, tiled floors and a long countertop. I discovered this place shortly before we moved away. Back then, it was open 24-hours and a big thrill was coming here late at night when my brothers were home from college. We’d order eggs and put quarters into the small, tableside jukeboxes, subjecting the room to Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy,” the Spanish version. My voice was dropping and I was less side-kick and more participant in my brothers’ exciting lives. We’d bring a stack of comics or debate Jewish law (exciting, right?).
The Four Aces isn’t open 24-hours anymore and the jukeboxes are gone, but everything else remains in place. Shefa has a Florentine omelet with thick potato wedges and homemade raisin bread ($9.89). I get a tall stack of Texas French toast ($5.99), which comes, no questions asked, with real maple syrup. One of the major adjustments to city life is real maple syrup goes from unflinching human right to a $1.50 upcharge. It’s criminal.
It's coffee, tea and more fun with our waitress. Then we cross the river to Vermont, following the old Route 5 highway to Thetford.
Quick sidebar, from the future! Those of you who are familiar with the Upper Valley are asking why our next stop wasn’t the iconic bakery King Arthur Flour in Norwich, Vermont. I’ll come clean with you. I’d never heard of it until you asked just now. I don’t know how it escaped my family’s attention for a decade, but I bet it had something to do with all that whole wheat bread we were eating at home. Now that you mention it, I remember clearly seeing it on the way to Thetford and I feel terrible about skipping out so I’m going to go ahead and just say it’s Shefa’s fault we didn’t go. Ok, back to the present!
By chance, we spot the hand painted sign for Isabell’s Cafe. Located in a tiny, yellow house, it’s the definition of homey. Isabell’s opened after we moved away so we don’t have history here, but once we’re in, we know we like it. It’s cozy with padded booths to the left and small kitchen tables to the right, each with a unique set of kitschy salt and pepper shakers.
I get the veggie omelet ($6.95) with a chewy English muffin, Shefa a tall stack of fluffy, skillet sized pancakes with blueberries, chocolate chips ($6.95) and real maple syrup, of course. Pads of butter melt into the pancakes as he drizzles it on top. “This is all I wanted,” says Shefa.
Small town life is on display here. One gentleman gets up to leave only to sit down again with a friend, catching up on family news. He’s still sitting there when we go to pay. There are benefits to country living — the syrup and slower pace chief among them.
We get back in the car heading south. It’s not raining but it’s cloudy and damp and we’re ready to leave. Our time in the old hometown was brief, but we touched all the bases, even if we didn’t meet Michael Jackson.
The Four Aces Diner – 23 Bridge St., West Lebanon, NH, 603-298-5515, 4acesdiner.com
The Fort – 151 Heater Rd., Lebanon, NH, 603-448-5512
King Arthur Flour – 135 Route 5, Norwich, VT, 802-649-3361, kingarthurflour.com
Isabell’s Cafe – 3052 Route 5, East Thetford, VT, 802-785-4300