The Waffle House is sort of the unofficial flower of the Southern Interstate exit. Driving North from the Gulf Coast on I-65 for the past two years, I have seen the yellow signs blossoming in hamlets from Alabama to Kentucky, and been intrigued, imagining fluffy waffles with real syrup, folksy waitresses with coffee pots, and an enlightening cross section of humanity. My path to Waffle Nirvana was blocked only by my mother, who has a phobia about unclean public bathrooms which I believe is a gene-linked trait in Jewish women of her generation. Having been a teacher, she is able to “hold it” like a camel retains water in the desert, but during the long trip home from Florida she insists, not unreasonably, that we choose lunch stops at restaurants where she can use the restrooms without sedation.
This year, I made a plan. Somewhere near Franklin, Tennessee, we decided to stop for lunch before visiting a Civil War cemetery and museum. I bravely proposed Waffle House, and offered to do bathroom reconnaissance - if it was not clean enough for my Yiddishe Mama, I would make full disclosure, and we would find another place to eat. Imagine my delight when I discovered that the “facilities,” and the restaurant itself, were clean enough for my mother.
On the way into the Waffle House, Sam and I were stopped by a gravel-voiced, sun-damaged woman in a “Gaitlinburg” sweatshirt with silk-screened horses. “Where are y’all headed?” she asked, taking a drag off her cigarette. I told her we were on our way home to Michigan. “Must be snow there,” she said, “we’re out looking for snow.” To those of us who live with shovels and kitty litter in our trunks from October to April, the idea of “looking” for snow is highly amusing, but there had been a rare blizzard across much of the deep South the day before, and apparently Ms. Gaitlinburg and her crew were really driving around looking for snow. We wished her safe travels, and found ourselves a booth.
The Waffle House menu is pretty straightforward except for the “World Famous Hash Browns 7 Different Ways” including “scattered, smothered, covered, chunked, topped, diced, peppered” and “scattered, smothered, covered, chunked, topped, diced & peppered.” No mention was made of Doc, Happy, Sleepy, Dopey, Grumpy, Sneezy or Bashful. I decided to have waffles, since I was at a Waffle House, and to try the Famous Hash Browns; I had mine scattered, smothered (with onions) and covered (with cheese).
As we waited for our food, I watched a young man named Esco working behind the counter. It was a tiny place, really, and we were seated at a booth near the grill, the cash register and the counter seating. Esco, with a thick drawl and the looks of a young Colin Farrell, was flirting with a carload of college girls wearing pajama pants and sweatshirts, on their way to Florida for spring break. “You don’t talk much,” he observed, speaking to the prettiest of them.
“I do when I have something to say,” she replied, smiling and fiddling with her fork. As his co-workers teased him about his sudden diligence about keeping the counter clean and the register area tidy, I wondered how often this happened to Esco, that he spent forty five minutes or an hour waiting on someone who captured his imagination and made his heart beat a little faster, only to have them get back on the Interstate on their way to someplace he wasn’t invited.
While watching this drama, I received my food, along with a cup of coffee. I am happy to report that the waffle was delicious, flavorful, crisp outside, fluffy inside and improved by the application of maple syrup. The hash browns were also very good, and exactly as they should have been. The potatoes were real, and I watched them cooking on the large griddle along with the onions; the cheese sauce involved not a little processed American cheese food, and provided a lovely, mellow blanket for the potatoes and onions. I can only dream of the day when I can order them scattered, smothered, covered, chunked, topped, diced & peppered. I might have to skip the waffle that time, though.
After a visit to the extraordinarily clean bathrooms, we headed out to the car, only to discover the four college travellers lying on the ground with their heads under the front end of their car. I asked if they needed help, and they said that they had been involved in a minor accident and didn’t think there were any big problems except that a “thingie” was loose, and they weren’t quite sure what it was. Although my son knew what it was, and started to tell them, I gave him a stern look and a “lock your mouth and throw away the key” pantomime. I saw a chance, in the untethered, unfocused course of a road trip, to leave the world a little better than I had found it.
“You know,” I said to the prettiest one, the one who only spoke when she had something to say, “I bet Esco could help you with this.” As we drove away, I could see our hero, rag in hand, crawling under the front bumper of the blue Chevy Malibu as the girls watched.
Ann Graham Nichols cooks and writes the Forest Street Kitchen blog in East Lansing, Michigan where she lives in a 1912 house with her husband, her son and an improbable number of animals.