What's wrong with you? You don't eat. You don't eat BIG. You eat like a bird. Instead of starting the day with a nice, big breakfast like mama used to make, you silly people eat grapefruit and multi-grain, non-fat cereal with skim milk. What's wrong with you? Have you forgotten how to live?
All these questions. John Kontorousis stands in his empty restaurant in East Baltimore, shrugs his shoulders, shakes his head and wonders where all the fat guys are. Where are all the big eaters? What is wrong with these people? It wasn't like this in the old country.
"Back then," Kontorousis says, the accent of his native Greece spicing his words, "if you were fat, you had money. You were from a rich family. . . . Today, everybody is skinny. I think they should eat more. It would help my diner."
John Kontorousis is big on big eating because he's had hard times at his Lakewood Grill -- no "e" -- and he's looking for new business, old business, any business. He's a butter-and-egg man. He'd like to see fat back in fashion. It would be nice if people worried a little less about cholesterol, too.
Which is easy for him to say. The man who pushes eating big is small and wiry, 60 years old and trim. "My mother complained that all her children were too skinny," Kontorousis says. "She would say, 'What? I didn't cook anything good?' "
Kontorousis swears his mother was a good cook, and that he ate big. He was just a skinny boy. One of those -- a guy who could eat all he wants and never get fat.
Which might explain why the sign outside his diner at Fayette and Lakewood boasts a challenge to the conventional wisdom about healthy eating: "Beat the all-the-eggs-you-can-eat record and receive free breakfast -- current record 25."
Actually the record is 26, but Kontorousis doesn't feel like changing the sign.
A regular customer by the name of Jimmy Brown -- "I go there with my wife on my days off" -- ate 26 eggs in a two-hour sitting last week. Brown is 38. He weighs 160 pounds. He ate five eggs, then 10, then kept going until he had established the record at the Lakewood Grill. He's a real man. He doesn't worry about cholesterol.
"I just wanted to see if I could do it," Brown says. "I didn't get sick. I felt fine. I took the eggs scrambled. No bread. No home fries. Just two cups of coffee."
This made John Kontorousis very happy. Though he didn't contact me about his promotional scheme, Kontorousis thinks publicity about the egg challenge will seduce some of the last of the Big Breakfast Eaters.
"Some people eat 20 or more eggs," he says, taking a pencil from his shirt pocket. "I would say over 30 percent have them scrambled, 30 percent have them over medium, 30 percent have them over light, and the rest have them up, sunny side. . . . I cook them any way you like, as many as you like."
He's offering a pretty good deal. Breakfast of an omelet, an order of bacon, toast and a cup of coffee will run you about $3. Two can eat a breakfast of sausage, home fries, toast and "as many eggs as you like, any style you like" for $4, plus tax. Anyone can eat "as many eggs as you like" for $1.50.
The eggs come from a farm in Taneytown. But enough about business.
John Kontorousis wants to expound on the American Dream, which is part of the offering when you sit at his counter for breakfast or lunch. He likes to lecture with a pencil in his hand. He grabs a sheet of yellow paper and, just as he's about to illustrate a point, he slips the pencil back into his shirt pocket. Then he takes the pencil out again. Then he puts it back. His white shirts are cross-hatched with pencil lines above the breast pocket. He never really draws anything on the paper.
"Americans have it wrong," he says, waving the pencil. "Education is important, but school only teaches you the alphabet. Experience is how you learn where to put the letters to make words."
He grew up in Greece, graduated from high school, then had three years of engineering studies in Athens before he signed on with a merchant shipping line at 22. He worked his way up to first-level engineer before moving to the United States in 1968. He wanted "college for my children and to be on my own."
He got a job at a machine shop and had a bunch of other jobs before starting work in the restaurant he now owns.
He admits it hasn't been easy. "A businessman would look at this diner and say 'You're wasting your time.' But I kept on working. I survived."
In 1985, Kontorousis was at a crossroads. His little diner was going bankrupt, and he could not afford to keep his son in college. But he made a few changes and firmed up his resolve. He dropped the Lakewood's emphasis on Greek food and offered instead a good, cheap -- if somewhat, shall we say, time-worn -- breakfast cafe. Working 100 hours a week, he pulled through.
Kontorousis is at his best when he complains about "the young people in this country," even though his own children have been successful. His son is a public defender, and his daughter graduated from Loyola with a graduate degree in business. "They were always working," he says. "My daughter was working here, working at school, just to pay the bills. As a father, you want to give your children all the good things you can, but that can hurt them. They must work just as you do or they think life is easy. They have to get experience."
His stories usually come back to that word: Experience. He also is a great believer in common sense.
"You see people who buy gin for $15," he says. "I could buy clothes for a year for that $15! I have fixed these shoes for many years . . . ."
He lifts his foot for all to see.
"Why should I buy new ones when these work? My goal is to survive. If my neighbors laugh at me because I don't have good shoes, what do I care?"
All the straight talk and common sense can make a person uncomfortable.
"You have to admire what you have," Kontorousis says. "That's the problem with the United States, you have too many things you don't admire."
And that includes eggs. We've got all these eggs that no one eats.
"I cook 'em any way you like," he says. "How many you like?"