Friday, April 22, 2011

Why I love Waffle House - a personal reflection

I discovered that one of my friends hates Waffle House -- the fast-food, greasy-spoon, 24-hour diner chain that is nigh ubiquitous in the American South. Her contempt surfaced during an online chat with another friend of mine, who shares my penchant for ‘the Shack’ (as it’s also known).
A: Um, I just noticed you like Waffle House...? Really? You and Nathan. Really?
M: haha, yeah! you don't?!?! I especially like the hash browns. 
A: ahhhhhhh...... it brings horrible memories to my head of oversized everything, including the people who were making it!
M: I still have a Waffle House paper hat somewhere.
A: I think the Waffle House is the microcosm of the United States... you get the cheap price for a whole bunch of [excrement], the server who is at least ten times heavier than you, and the obnoxiously loud people sitting next to you... I still get jitters when I think about that place.
M: I guess you could think of it like that. Just like the U.S., some parts are bad, some parts are good... like the hash browns!

The iconic Waffle House sign

A. clearly doesn't think much of dining there. The disdain fairly drips from her words, like the oil glistening off a freshly cooked Waffle House sausage. Merely voicing a fondness for said eatery is apparently sufficient to taint my online reputation!

I was taken aback by the vehemence of her critique. I couldn't just wave it off, and dismiss her aversion as misplaced cultural elitism. I needed to contemplate, re-examine -- and ultimately reaffirm -- my position.

Justin Bieber visiting Waffle House
Don't need no Starbucks - Justin Bieber brings the Woo! to Waffle House

Why do I love Waffle House? What is it about that institution that tickles my fancy? Is it not ridiculous to express delight for an American fast food chain? And if not, why Waffle House over, say, Denny's, or McDonalds, or KFC, etc.? Moreover, what does this brand affinity imply about my values?

Reflecting on these questions has given me broader insight into my ambivalent relationships with contemporary American culture, the industrial food production system, and my oft-inadvertent complicity in the voracious attitude of excess consumption.

Good food fast in any era

A Cultural Icon of the American South
Founded in 1955 by Joe Rogers Sr. and Tom Forkner -- both of whom retain a collective majority stake in the company today -- the Waffle House chain of restaurants has grown to encompass over 1600 locations in over 25 states. Its headquarters is located near Norcross, Georgia, and industry analysts have pegged its annual revenues at over $500 million.

Shaquille O’Neal visits Waffle House
The Shaq at the Shack - Shaquille O'Neal is in the House!

The peculiar status of Waffle House as a regional icon of the present-day American South cannot be denied. Its towering, signature yellow signs pioneered the art of attracting the attention of passing motorists, and have been described as the 'unofficial flower of the Southern Interstate'.

The context of the restaurants is important to consider. Late night diners are a staple of the American blue-collar psychological landscape, with Edward Hopper's Nighthawks being emblematic of their influence. Waffle House, consciously or not, operates in an environment heavily informed by this influence, and its working class connotations. The coffee is always on; a pot of grits simmers perpetually...

Nighthawks - Edward Hopper

The chain has its own customs, cryptic lingo, coded communication signals, and even its own music -- every restaurant features a jukebox of 45 RPM singles with commissioned melodies ready for instant playback (Listen to the corporate theme song, "Waffle House Family" from Mary Welch Rogers -- a saccharine tune both aggressively hokey and wonderful).

The customer base is primarily working class and family oriented in nature, although pop celebrities such as Usher, Reese Witherspoon, Jay-Z, Pete Sampras, Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and -- perhaps most notoriously -- Kid Rock have all been known to wander in occasionally for a hot tasty meal.

Waffle House has also been featured in movies such as Tin Cup, Crossroads, and Due Date. The 2000 Hootie and the Blowfish album 'Scattered, Smothered & Covered' was a reference to a popular Waffle House menu item. The chain has inspired videos, songs, comedy routines, and even poetry. The popular website was born at a Waffle House.

Over the five decades of its existence, Waffle House has gradually evolved into a lasting and consistent fixture in the Southern fast food vernacular.

A Damning Critique
I generally subscribe to a world view of sensual relativism: De gustibus non est disputandem -- and in this case, I mean that literally. Yet I can't help but notice a defensiveness in my reaction to A.'s harsh take. Am I embarrassed by my anti-epicurean partiality? Is there a class element to this, or is it something deeper?

I understand A.'s perspective. Her repulsion is instinctively ideological. Michael Pollan (the bestselling author of In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma) would argue that the 'nutritional contradictions of capitalism'1 demand the existence of monocultural chains like Waffle House. Every cheap, oversized, sprawling Waffle House meal is an inevitable, inexorable, unavoidable end product of a heavily subsidized system of industrial agriculture, starring corn and its infinite derivatives. The outputs of the system -- however hypertrophied -- must be distributed, served and consumed!

Stinging commentary indeed (though A. might object that I'm inferring a larger argument than she intended). How can I reconcile this censorious approach with my obvious fondness for Waffle House fare?

A Celebration of Possibility
Self-knowledge provides the guilty answer. Everything that makes my friend recoil in horror is what I love most about 'America's place to work, America's place to eat'. Label me a gourmand, not a gourmet.

Scrutinize for instance the Waffle House menu.

The choices therein speak volumes about the prevailing cultural attitude to diet: How would you like your hash browns? Scattered, smothered, covered, chunked, diced, peppered, capped, topped, country -- or heck, why not 'all the way'? And what size serving would you like? Regular, large, triple? Its sweet cream waffles are still made with the same original recipe, and the chain remains the world's leading seller of t-bone steaks. 2% of the entire United States' foodservice egg production winds up on a Waffle House plate. The establishment clearly delights in matters of appetite.

Watching a Waffle House short order cook prepare a meal in plain view is an edifying, educating experience: it is a distillation of food simplicity -- and a curt rebuttal of gastronomic pretension. As Esquire writes,
"Its menu is narrow the way the selection of notes in 'The Goldberg Variations' is narrow. Let diners expand their menus by simple, relentless addition; Waffle House relies on a higher math, so its menu, which seems a forthright declaration of its limitations, is actually a celebration of possibility."

If Dante's Third Circle had a fast food restaurant, it would probably be Waffle House.

The truth is, self-discipline has no place in Waffle House America. I accept that. I embrace it. The spectre of David Wallerstein (the McDonald's executive who invented Super-Sizing) may haunt us all, but global supply chain ramifications and fears of culinary homogeneity hold no sway when you're faced with an extra large, piping hot bowl of Bert's Chili.

A Question of Authencity
In his book Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser describes several key themes in the evolution of fast food in tandem with American society -- notably fluid automotive accessibility, franchising, standardization and uniformity, and a hazy evocation of family values in an effort to foster brand loyalty. In many ways, Waffle House is a poignant, representative example. Good food fast and friendly; open 24 hours. The well-mannered slogan chillingly, and perfectly describes what the chain is all about.

In particular, Schlosser's wry observation of the transformation of the food service industry -- from a countless multitude of independent restaurants towards an aggregated franchise model -- holds special resonance. With respect to Waffle House, Fast Food critics might argue that its folksy charm is in fact an entirely artificial effect: its nostalgic take on diners is a cloned hypocrisy, a contrived facade replicated directly out of a franchise manual.

One size fits all?

I reject that cynical perspective. We need only to interpret the chain in holistic rather than menacing terms. Every Waffle House is like a delicate coral reef -- a complex, dynamic system of interacting, diverse, interdependent entities that have come together.*

The atmosphere at Waffle House feels organic, genuine, and authentic -- and so it is. It doesn't matter that it's staged to begin with. Once set in motion, it takes on a syrupy life of its own. That forced good-timey, southern, courteous, and polite aura seduces and comforts (or horrifies and repels, in A.'s case). It is distinctly American in character -- curiously monotone, yet simultaneously eccentric.

Jonah Hill flips the WH bird

When I dine at a Waffle House, I feel like I have stolen a startling glimpse of the American empire in glacial decline. The restaurants bustle with a muscular and proletarian energy, yet they also seem worn, downtrodden, and sadly cheerful. The booths (which only seat 4) are cramped and uncomfortable, and yet clinical attention has been paid to their layout with respect to time and motion efficiency. The surfaces are clean -- but the greasy residue of years gone by can never be entirely scoured away. Everything exudes a pervasive, shambling quality of angst and introspection.

Comedian Jim Gaffigan's extended, hilarious riff on Waffle House both lampoons and rejoices in the gritty reality of it all:
"I love Waffle House [...] it's the people in there. It's like a white trash convention. Or for me, a family reunion!"

It is this heartfelt, gritty quality that ultimately redeems Waffle House. The staff -- typically older, career service-industry workers -- are familiar, real, and flawed. The customers too. The salt of the earth congregate here to eat their meals in a noisy, shared communion. Participating in the jocular interplay between customers, wait staff, and cooks is to bear witness to a sophisticated social dynamic in action -- cultural anthropologists take careful note!

There is no facade here -- it is a genuine slice of legitimate, unvarnished, kitschy American reality. It's messy, it's sticky, it's a chaotic technicolour delight.

I have come to realize that not everyone shares my predilection for the Shack. It's not for everyone. But before we rush to condemn Waffle House for its extravagant serving sizes, calculated demeanour, and rambunctious population, we should pause to consider whether it truly deserves our scorn, or whether instead we should wistfully acknowledge its impact on Southern culture -- and award it our occasional, late-night, 2AM, drunken fealty.

* The comparison to a reef is not as ludicrous as it might superficially appear. Suppliers, distributors, managers, wait staff, cooks, customers -- all of these elements are brought into play during the course of operation of a Waffle House restaurant. In the course of researching this essay I came across a case study of Waffle House's disaster supply chain management approach (many restaurants are located in areas affected by hurricanes and other potential natural disaster events). The study outlined Waffle House's philosophy and meticulous preparation with respect to natural disasters. 
"Nothing good can come from a closed Waffle House after a hurricane -- not for us, not for the community, not for the associates." This was a quote in the study from Bert Thornton, Waffle House Restaurants President and COO (and inventor of the eponymous Bert's Chili). Although naturally self-serving, the statement nevertheless betrays a surprising awareness of the role that the chain plays in local economies and of the consequential disruption caused by a fettered restaurant.

Finally, listen to this paean to Waffle House from David Wilcox.

Other posts I’ve written on Waffle House:
FEMA’s ‘Waffle House Index’ for Disaster Assessment
Waffle House Tattoo - Now That’s Commitment!