Special Waffle House Relativity

The purpose of this assignment was to become a cultural anthropologist modeling our work after Clifford Geertz, and to study a sub-culture that we know little about.
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While the racecars zoom by and the livestock roam, a quiet and unnoticed phenomenon has been sweeping the nation since 1955. The black block letters on the tall marquee and the grease-laden atmosphere remind you where you are. I’m in Waffle House, sitting here watching people. I’m not sure why I first set foot in a local Waffle House so many years ago, but I do remember the first time I sat down and ordered at one. It must have been my sophomore year of high school. I was rather unimpressed to say the least. In this packed place, an ominous haze of smoke loomed over the room/dining area, and I wasn’t sure exactly what to make of the potluck assortment of people. But when the waitress set the two Belgian waffles in front of me, I could immediately identify with the reasons the general populace seem to flock to their local Waffle Houses. Waffle House’s unspoken official slogan is, “America’s Place to Eat”, and from the taste of those first two waffles, I understood precisely why. The physical appearance of the restaurants isn’t particularly consistent with the quality of the food they serve there. Granted, it is a restaurant that specializes in breakfast foods, but Waffle Houses are revered as being the "best place to eat at any hour" (patron).

So many years after my first visit to the “Waho”, as some call it, today I return for a very different reason. Today, I came as a cultural anthropologist trying to unlock the mystery of the niche Waffle House has created for itself in our culture. Modeling my endeavor after the cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s essay, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight”, I set to work on Waffle House: the rest lodge, the interstate pit stop, the study hall, the boundless general gathering area for the masses.

Making the Waffle

Waffle house was the brainchild of two neighbors in Avondale Estates, Ga. with the dream of a company dedicated to people. In 1955 Georgia’s first Waffle House opened its doors in a small suburb of Atlanta, where even to this day, a waffle house stands and serves breakfast with the original mentality of “Good food fast” (Hot off the Grill, P. 1). Today, Waffle House has expanded as far west as New Mexico and as far north as and Pennsylvania into a 1,300-strong corporate chain with the same goal in mind (Hot Off the Grill, P. 6). As I sit and watch my food being prepared in front of me, I can only imagine the first customers watching the very same thing nearly fifty years ago. The cozy atmosphere can only be compared to old-time diners, which they most obviously must have been modeled after. There are booths, a low bar, and a high bar where you can sit on swiveling stools. The color scheme of every Waffle House is the same: wood trimming interior with sickly colored yellow wallpaper and ceiling tile. Yellow globes hang from the ceilings to provide the main source of incandescent light backed up by florescent lights sporadically placed along the ceiling. If the paint and wallpaper weren't yellow by design, the grease in the air and smoke from the limitless flow of customers would surely do the job. Probably a smart move by the executive board of directors over the interior decorating.

Scattered, covered, and smothered please

Coffee is a bottomless cup that costs a one-time fee of $1.07 per visit, and toast is free with any order. The menu consists of ordinary breakfast items such as omelets, waffles, hashbrowns, steaks, hams, and eggs prepared any which way under the sun.

Interestingly enough, there is a certain tradition upheld in the order calling and preparing process. There are red tiles on the floor in the kitchen area dubbed “calling blocks” on which the employees must stand in order to call out orders. Orders are not given to cooks by means of written commands, but rather all are given orally. In addition to their oral ordering system, Waffle House has refined a sort of “Waffle House Language” that all their servers and cooks go by.

Burt was one of the first cooks at the original Waffle House in Avondale Estates, Ga, hence the name “Burt’s Chili”. Hashbrowns are scattered or in a ring, smothered, covered, chunked, diced, peppered, and topped. Each of these interesting words carries a different preparation method of the hashbrowns. “Scattered” hashbrowns are spread out on the grill whereas hashbrowns that are requested “in a ring” are put in a special ring on the grill, so as to make them crispier. “Covered” hashbrowns come with cheese, “smothered” come with onions, “chunked” with ham, “topped” comes with chili, “diced” comes with tomatoes, and “peppered” comes with hot peppers. I have witnessed to the intricate system of calling hashbrown orders; when a server gets particularly fired up during peak business hours, he or she can rant off orders in a fashion that only waffle house employees are able to decipher.

People and their houses

Still, the most interesting things about Waffle House aren’t its heritage, or its menu, but the people that go there. Of course, you have your common drifters that seem to find their way to a Waffle House booth near you. And then there are regulars. Regulars are the repeat customers that habitually seek the cozy confines of the Waffle House walls. There are regulars for particular shifts, and regulars that come whenever they please. Regulars are generally known by their first name, and often get portions of their meals free (drink, toast, coffee, etc).

Regulars tend make a sort of tradition about coming to waffle house after a particular event. Be it after a musical concert, or after a long day of work, or even just a nightly ritual of study hall amidst the waffle house mélange. Some find comfort in the diversity that can be found within a local Waffle House. Regulars tend to enjoy the drifters that come through their Waffle House and frequently take pleasure in simply watching others and their unique peculiarities. When I say “their Waffle House”, it is in the most literal sense. People start identifying with a particular Waffle House, and it literally becomes “their” waffle house and thus the bond is formed.

However, the bond formed between a Waffle House and those bonds formed with the Balinese men’s cocks seemed to be that of a different nature. Cocks, to the Balinese men, represent their pride; their “self-operating penises, ambulant genitals with a life of their own” (368) according to Geertz. But to Waffle House goers, the restaurant plays more a certain territorial role. This works much in the same way people in our culture grow fond and territorial of their home town or their residence home. Waffle Houses become people’s makeshift abode – their home away from home. Any commoner may notice the relationship between regulars and their particular Waffle House. Regulars’ stays are usually extended, their conversations with the servers are usually more in depth than the extent of their order, and the frequency of their visits is not limited to their hunger.

Great Waffle House melting pot

After sitting in Waffle house for a few hours, one begins to notice the extreme variance of Waffle House customers. Any Waffle House employee can tell you about the Elvis impersonators, pimps and their prostitutes, hitch hikers, and the vast assortment of other characters that come and go.

As I sat drinking coffee one evening, I was surprised and subtly amused by the variety that happened across that particular Waffle House. Three men dressed up in fairly nice slacks, button-down oxford shirts, and ties sat and discussed business over a cup of coffee and a quick bite to eat. A fairly country-looking couple sat in the corner all to themselves and spoke inaudibly. Of course, one can always take note that there is one particular table that never ceases to seat people. This is where the House employees take their breaks, and smoke cigarettes while awaiting customers during slow business. Their friends sit there patiently carrying about their own business -- perhaps reading a book, or doing homework.

On no special night, one can invariably find a student sitting in the corner with a cup of coffee or a carbonated beverage and a cigarette in hand looming over some thick novel; possibly a textbook that they are studying or even an English book from which they are analyzing a story for class the next day. Occasionally, I would look up from my writing and catch the casual stare of a stranger across the way. A simple nod would suffice to let their presence be known, and a sort of mutual understanding of non-confrontational value is met. “This is my waffle house and it’s going to stay that way. But it’s all right if you sit at that booth. I understand why you are here,” is almost what their eyes are saying as you stare back at them.

Geertz tells the readers of his essay that he and his wife “were intruders” and the Balinese dealt with them by acting “as though we were not there” (364). Unlike Geertz’s experience in Bali, I noticed that I instantly felt accepted as a part of Waffle House when I entered. The air, thick with grease is also filled with the sounds of popping bacon and sizzling hashbrowns being served up for a customer. Every now and again the sound of an order being called out may be heard, but the din of the background conversation soon melds with all the orders being called out. Soon, the conglomeration of sound meshes into one big rumpus of conversation that the ears perceive, but can’t really decipher. All the sights, smells, and sounds that are produced within these walls all meld into an inexplicably “Waffle House” experience. It’s no wonder that one feels at home in this atmosphere: people are friendly, food is good, and because the other customers are just as much a stranger as everyone else.

Waffle House, the Rock

The Waffle Houses that speckle the nation represent a breed of modern time warps; a kind of temporal distortion goes unnoticed by many. They remain unchanged as the rest of our nation evolves, both technologically and socially. Waffle houses continue to be, “that place where you can get good food in a friendly atmosphere”. Waffle houses smack of old-fashioned diner persona, but in a way they lack the genuine nature of that time long forgotten. Despite their obvious generic nature and widespread popularity that seems to peg them as the antithesis of the original old time diners, Waffle Houses still seem to fit into our lives as the classic breakfast eatery. This may be attributed to the fact that they seem to be cleverly designed to blend into modern society but maintain the original ideals that the main proprietors originally intended.

People have come and gone in the era of Waffle House, but the fact is that the restaurant itself remains the same. For this very reason, the general public still seems to be attracted to the seats, stools, and booths of their local waffle houses. The diversity of the people that populate Waffle houses across the nation seems to be their binding feature. Although they come from all walks of life, the customers seem to represent a discrete subculture through their diversity. The factory worker that gets off after third shift and wants a warm meal and a cup of coffee, the college student looking for a place to study in the middle of the night, and even the average Joe who can’t sleep all come to waffle house to seek others just like themselves, but remain worlds apart.

This, I would say, is the most captivating feature of Waffle House culture, and also forms a parallel with that of American culture as a whole. This nation was once the “Great American Melting Pot”, where people came seeking religious freedom, but mostly to avoid persecution of personal values. Waffle houses are that place where one can still go to find others just like themselves in the sense that everyone is looking for the same thing -- strangers to fit in with. Just as the early immigrants came to America to blend with all the other foreigners, customers continually visit Waffle houses with the same idea in mind; strangers among strangers, anonymity amidst the anonymous.

A one-time visitor soon becomes a habitual guest as he or she unveils the goldmine of cultural diversity that Waffle Houses present. And thus, the regular customer one sees sitting in the corner of the local Waffle House next time he or she visits may have been one of those drifters, or those first timers, or it may have even been you.


Sources:

"Hot Off the Grill: Waffle House E-Press Kit." Waffle House Story. 2002. http://www.wafflehouse.com/story.html (5 March, 2002).

Geertz, Clifford. “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” Ways of Reading. Ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. 365-398.

Patron, Random Waffle House customer.

"Frankly, I was horrified by life, at what a man had to do simply in order to eat, sleep, and keep himself clothed. So I stayed in bed and drank. When you drank the world was still out there, but for the moment it didn’t have you by the throat." -Charles Bukowski

This ran, madly, through my head during my training in a Nashville Waffle House. 24 hours earlier I had been sweating in the sauna-like heat of a Greyhound bus coming down from the Yukon enroute to Tennessee… 12 hours before my travel companion stressed waffles as our first solid food in 4 days (we quick found that The Dog only stops at bars in Canada). As I eyed the grimy yellow menu covered in disturbing caricatures of high-rung Waffle House people (why the Vice President would OK a cartoon midget-in-a-Mardi-gras-head effect to be applied to his own body is beyond me) my friend squinted over his steamy, early morning coffee and said, “You should work here.” Being homeless and broke in summer time Nashville prompted my decision, but curiosity over what it would be like sealed it.

5 hours of Waffle House videos. Safety. Service. Smile. The Waffle House Way. I sat on an upturned milk crate in the back and chain smoked Lucky Strikes while my manager rattled off a long, deadpan, script of the duties and responsibilities of Waffle House workers, “Since our beginning in 1955, Waffle House has become a Unique American Phenomenon™ by serving Good Food Fast®.” 2 hours of open book testing to assess my basic understanding of the English language and the Waffle House secret code. Customer says, “I would like hash browns with cheese, onions and tomatoes and.” I write PCTD on my pad then stand on a designated tile behind the counter and SCREAM (a competent and happy Waffle house worker also screams a ‘hullo’ to every customer who walks in the door) at the grill cook, “POTATOES COVERED TOPPED DICED!!” Who places various diner food products in very specific orders on plates (jelly packet at top right of the plate for wheat toast, bottom left for white…) instead of being given tickets.

Between coughing fits of an old smoker, my manager told me that I would be, “A real good worker” and I was thrown on the floor with no more instruction than to smile and not smoke in the front of the house. Wage is $2.13 an hour to wear brown polyester and have your ass slapped by ageing good ol’ boys with coffee stained teeth. Waffle House serves over 80 million cups of coffee every year.

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