Hand to Mouth

misadventures in eating

The essential importance of the greasy spoon.

with 2 comments

Having had a somewhat alternative childhood in terms of food and emotional stability, the first time I ever went to a Waffle House despite having grown up in the South was at the age of 16, with my friend Stephanie, her sister and her sister’s boyfriend at the time. I remembered being astonished by the dim lighting, the enormous waffles, the slathering butter, the soda fountain Vanillla Coke. I had soup, I think — it was like 2 a.m., I felt justified getting something without a waffle involved.

Since, I’ve spent a lot of mornings letting the Waffle House All Star breakfast soak up the residual booze in my system, sucking down cups of their coffee and keeping my head down, avoiding direct sunlight for fear I’ll melt into a pile of hangover sludge.

But there’s something really wonderfully comforting about Waffle House. The food is by no means four star, but it gets points for constancy, and despite my usually more-finicky tastes when it comes to restaurants and tipping for a meal, Waffle House and its hash browns — scattered, topped and capped — are comforting, their enormous waffles are dear to me. The bowls of grits deeply warm and comforting, and nobody fries an egg over easy like the short order cook at the Waffle House on U.S. 15-501 in Chapel Hill, N.C.

It’s an amalgam of things that makes Waffle House a culinary touchstone for me: the unabashed, unchanging affection for grease and a griddle that probably hasn’t been washed in a decade — just as these things should be — and the combination of carbohydrates and starch, familiar, easy flavors that you know on your tongue. It’s easy, it’s uncomplicated, it’s ketchup and the umami of potatoes, the sweet, creamy-deep bite of waffles, it’s the rich taste of fried eggs. There’s nothing challenging about eating at a Waffle House — other than perhaps clearing your plate — and you always know exactly what you’ll find there.

I also associate it with friends — their time and the drowsy hours of midmorning on Saturdays After when we drag ourselves into the restaurant and our favorite waitress comes and brings us a round of coffee without a second question, giving us a long-suffering smile. All these pictures, taken by Dex yesterday before we trekked off to the Pittsborough Public Library sale are all peppered with half-images of us, because food is nothing without the people who consume it.

My friends and I, we like to cram five to a booth (we’ve got a thing for prime numbers; it involves scifi and bad jokes and probably sexually-suggestive things) and order up until we’ve got to rearrange napkin holders and near burn off our fingerprints, holding burning hot plates and cups as other, freer hands do a delicate rearrangement of plates. Then there’s a lot of recrimination and cussing and “pass the ketchup” and “pass the syrup” and “I said the syrup, not the ketchup, you moron!” and “I wasn’t even passing it to you!”

But in the end, there is no joy like pure joy on a plate:

Alton Brown argues that America has, in its modernization and glitz forgotten the manifest destiny that pushed us westward in our planes, trains and automobiles; I don’t exactly agree with him, but I share his sadness that on the sides of highways and byways, back roads, you don’t see many places like Waffle House anymore. And that Waffle House, for all its lack of pretension and sweet-nature, is actually a chain restaurant, its contemporaries places like Denny’s (where I’ve never been) and IHOP (where I go every time I get a chance). But for all the pointless arguing about the sanctity of the greasy spoon, its essential nature and purity in the hearts and minds and Rockwell expectations of a generation of people suddenly struck with nostalgia — bell bottoms, ‘fros, leggings, Christ — its spirit is still there — and it’s overflowing all over my table.


Written by lshen

October 1, 2006 at 4:31 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. There are no Waffle Houses in Connecticut, and I’ve never been to IHOP, but I love Denny’s. Denny’s is the only restaurant I know of where you can get more food than you can eat for $5, and it tastes a lot better than the crap you can get for $20 at the other places in town.


    October 2, 2006 at 3:01 pm

  2. It’s true. It’s that constancy thing I talked about: you can always count of Waffle House (or Denny’s, or IHOP) to sate that fundamental need in you for uh, a metric ton of grease.


    October 2, 2006 at 10:12 pm

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