On July 4th, I went to a local Waffle House with a Black friend. Our usual Waffle House that we hit up on University Drive was packed solid so we drove to one in Five Points, a mostly white area of east Huntsville. When we entered, there was only one booth that looked open so we claimed it.
A few seconds later though, a middle-aged white guy with long stringy hair and a mean, no nonsense, but for all that, somewhat mournful look came in from smoking a cigarette and told us that was his booth. Sure enough, there was a half-filled coffee mug still on the table. We quickly apologized and moved to the counter. While we ate, he stared, sometimes intensely, at us. Judging by his appearance and demeanor I silently chalked it up to old Southern redneck ways, ways that are never completely dead in Alabama.
For those living outside the South, The Waffle House is ubiquitous, a true blue-collar Southern institution. You can’t drive more than a few miles without running into one and in many rural areas, the Waffle House is the main community anchor, which is why I believe the Tennessee shooter a few months ago targeted a Waffle House and not McDonalds or Wendy’s. The chain was founded in 1955 in Georgia and quickly spread throughout the South. The Waffle House has a many endearing quirky things about it which is one of its main draws. It uses, for instance, its own special, in-house lingo: “ smothered” (topped with onions), “covered” (cheese) and dozens more colorful expressions.
According to the Wikipedia Waffle House entry quote from an ESPN story, “Using accoutrements such as jelly packets, mayonnaise packets, pickles, cheese and hash brown pieces, grill operators are told what orders go on which plates. A jelly packet at the bottom of the plate signifies scrambled eggs. Raisin toast is signified by a packet of apple butter. A mustard packet facing up means a pork chop. Face-down means country ham. A pat of butter is a T-bone, and its place on the plate determines how the steak cooked, from well done at the top to rare at the bottom.”
The food? It’s been dubbed “comfort food for truckers” and that’s a summary as good as it gets. Even Anthony Bourdain was a fervent WaHo fan.
But unlike most restaurants, where preparation and cooking gets hidden behind swinging doors, at the Waffle House, it’s done all out in the open. This means the cooks and waitresses constantly interact, yelling back and forth, wisecracking and bitching. It makes for an entertaining floor show with episodes of high drama and gum chewing waitresses sometimes reaching near celebrity status locally, a prime example of glorious Southern sociability in full bloom.
This sociability I’m convinced is one reason why workplace relations have historically been so harsh in the South: Southern workers really do have to be made to work. I remember on my first job after I moved seeing a bunch of nurses aides stop and get in a lively discussion on the best way to cook a turkey. A male supervisor walked by and barked, “Get back to work!” One of the aides leaned over and winked at me, “We don’t pay any attention to what he says” – and continued talking about turkeys. I’ve seen this sort of thing go on all the time here.
Undeniably the Waffle House has its dark side too. How could it be otherwise in a society where race and class lines get drawn and redrawn daily, sometimes moving forward, sometimes moving back? It’s been sued for racism in the past. Workers complain that daily meals get deducted from their pay checks, even if they don’t eat. The owner is a staunch Republican on the right and donates heavily to right-wing Republican causes. But regardless of high management, because of the chain’s popularity, every Waffle House, becomes a defacto arena, an impromptu theater, sometimes open, sometimes disguised, where social relations of all stripes infinitely play out. Sometimes driving past a Waffle House late night reminds you of a bleak Edward Hopper painting; other times, a spontaneous community-in-formation.
We finished eating and I asked for the check. The waitress – who had just been singing Whitney Houston songs a few moments before – smiled and said, “He picked it up,” pointing the booth where the man with the long stringy hair had been sitting. “He didn’t want y’all to know until after he left.” I was stunned and felt deeply ashamed, having stereotyped him so based on appearance. I tipped her big time.
As we left, she was still singing Whitney.