Time and Tide and Hashbrowns: A Waffle House Christmas
To fully appreciate Waffle House, one must come at it not as a restaurant, but as a sort of triage between work and home, the road and rest, hunger and fulfilment. Reviewing a restaurant brings standards and expectation, and a built-in judgement that however justified in the abstract is uncalled for in context. A triage station is just concerned with getting the job done and getting you on your way. We do not send critics to emergency rooms to rate how they run codes on patients in various suspended stages between life and death. A rating scale of one to five IV stands for trauma would seem ludicrous, whereas anything less than 3 out of 5 forks relegates a restaurant as only for the unwashed masses who wouldn’t appreciate haute cuisine even if those same critics deign to explain the wonder of it all in the low language of the common vernacular.
Critics are gatekeepers, you see, roving marshals who enforce cultural norms and patrol the unspoken lines of class, style, and taste so they themselves can speak about them. The triage, however, takes all the whosoever wills knowing full well that the need is immediate, the service must be rendered efficiently, and the person who came for help must be put back on their way as soon as they are able. “The main facts in human life are five: birth, food, sleep, love, and death” wrote E.M Forster. Life and death are out of our hands. Sleep can be had anytime and anywhere. Love is the elusive thing all humanity has chased, and sought, and fought over since there were two people to do so. It is food that we have the most control over, that we have the greatest need for, that we take for granted when we have it and can think of nothing else when we do not. It is the great equalizer of humanity: we all gotta eat. And nowhere do we all fit better than in the hard red and grey booths of a Waffle House.
“It is indeed marvelous,” Anthony Bourdain intoned over an establishing shot of the famous yellow-clad oasis for humanity shining in the darkness when his Parts Unknown show came calling. “An irony-free zone where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts; where everybody regardless of race, creed, color or degree of inebriation is welcomed.”
The germ of the idea that would become the legendary chain that would take all comers at all hours started with one of the founders being offered a meal at a stranger’s shack in the dead of night as a young man. That’s why they made the signage yellow, to be a beacon in the night. To be the triage. To be the fix, however temporary, to the trauma of day, or of a life that had been scattered and covered.
Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, you can stop the bleeding of life’s injuries for a moment at Waffle House.
Even on Christmas, and especially when you have nowhere else to go…
Christmas Day, 2019
When folks ask of my hometown, you have to explain that there are actually two versions of it. The busy north-south conduit between two interstates that runs through it means most commerce moved out along the four-lane highway and every manner of fast food, hotel, and other business can be found along either side. Meanwhile, the actual town and surrounding area go unnoticed to the millions zipping by, except for the out of state or Canadian drivers who zip too much and spend a few minutes with the zealous and tightly budgeted local law enforcement. Plenty of folks have been through there, some have even stopped there, but those of us who are from there are a distinct minority.
Richmond Hill, Georgia, has a similar issue. The town itself is growing, with a population increase of almost 63% from the 2010 census to the 2020 one. But most folks not from there know of it from the other Richmond Hill, the I-95 exit that has the usual assortment of travel-centric businesses found on the east coast’s main thoroughfare. Gas stations, truck stops, hotels, all clustered around this southern interstate outpost of the glorious gem of a city that is Savannah. On an average day, the nearly 2,000 mile I-95 corridor sees 72,000 vehicles clog its lanes going to and fro. On a peak day, like around Christmas, that number can get as high as 300,000. For the folks from Pennsylvania who are humming “there’s no place like home for the holidays” while traversing this stretch of interstate close enough to Dixie’s sunny shores, I-95 is both a blessing and a curse.
Or, in our case, my folks from West Virginia who were planning on meeting me in Richmond Hill on Christmas Day. I set off to the rendezvous after the usual morning gifts and eating with my own family in North Carolina, and onto I-95 I went for the relatively short trip down to Richmond Hill. Exit 87 was selected because it was a good overnight pitstop for my folks on their journey from Up Yonder down to Clearwater, Florida, long the southern outpost for my mom’s side of the family. Her oldest brother Denny and family had lived there since the late 1950s and done well for themselves.
That’s an understatement. My Uncle Denny was a living legend. Born in Gad, West Virginia which doesn’t even exist anymore thanks to the lake formed by damning the Gauley River valley he loved so much, Denny had been around the world more times than anyone could count. The walls of his home were covered with photographs from 60 plus years of world travels great and small. From Up Yonder to the Matterhorn to the outback of Australia, and all points in between. He fulfilled a lifelong dream of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail, with a footnote that he did come off the trail for a few weeks to have heart stints put in before returning and finishing. A long career of teaching biology and coaching football at Clearwater High School meant deep roots in that community, but he never really got over the hills of home, and it drove a sense of adventure in him all of his days on the earth.
The stories are legion. The quip in our family that the most exciting thing you could do was go on a hike with Uncle Denny while the craziest thing you could do was go on a hike with Uncle Denny. “It’s just over the next hill” was both his sense of optimism and, if you were his companion, a prayer that he was right. In recorded history, the only time the family’s 4th of July feast has ever been delayed through famine, war, or (albeit scaled and distanced) COVID-19 was when Uncle Denny had 2/3rds of the family — let us call it traversing — the woods just behind Up Yonder because “just over the next hill” turned out to be the wrong one and they needed a spell to get back on top of the mountain. As a teenager I was blessed to go on “a little hike” with just me and my Uncle Denny, which we returned from two days later.
He had the audacity to court the daughter of another living legend, C.P. Wells,1 the longtime principle of Nicholas County High School, and spent over 60 years loving Aunt Jean totally. Their children grew and had very successful lives and gave them great joy in family, in grandchildren, in more adventures.
Then 2019 came, and Parkinson’s finally put an end to all that, and now Richmond Hill on Christmas it is, meeting up with my folks so we could attend the services together. The memorials were delayed until after Christmas so family from overseas and far away like West Virginia could get coordinated to be there. Coordinating meant a night in a hotel, then joining my parents for the ride down to the Gulf Coast the following day. The traffic was not too bad, but once at Richmond Hill the crowding of humanity around this particular pitstop was at a crush level. My folks arrived quite a bit before me, and informed me they were going to check-in to the room and try to go eat something. 90 minutes later, as I approached, I called to inform them, but was told they spent the interval at a Denny’s waiting for a long time, finally getting seated, eventually getting some drinks, snacked on some crackers, then after an hour and a half of total time gave up and went back to the room. My mother, who always packs for even a short trip as if the apocalypse was upon us, insisted she was worn out and fine to stay in the room, rest, and snack out of her considerable travel stash of munchies. My father and I both wanted some actual food.
And there, right when we needed it, was Waffle House.
Although prepared to wait, and seeing the crowd, the bustling server immediately yelled out to us coming through the door “Y’all come on in, we’ll have you seated in about 15 minutes” without ever breaking stride between booths. Looking at the scene of crowded humanity at what was now almost 9pm Eastern Standard Time in Richmond Hill, Georgia, on Christmas Day we thought there was no way.
She had it done in 10.
Dad had his coffee; I had my coke and a glass of water. Eggs, and BLTs with a side of bacon, and toast came quickly but were consumed relatively slowly. Waffle House was bustling but they never hurry you. Which was fine because not only did the scatter, smothered, and covered hashbrowns2 satisfy, but the company was perfect. Being five months short of 40 at the time, and with dad in his 70s, sitting and eating together is something we are acutely aware has a pitch count on it. That this meal was en route to yet another funeral was not out of place, since all too often these days we are seeing each other because another friend or family member had shuffled off their mortal coil. But whether it is gas station Subway or Georgia Waffle House, the time is treasured, and special, and appreciated. Sitting and eating is like a blip in the space time continuum; I could be middle aged and talking as an equal to my father one moment, but not discernably different than sitting across from him as a kid the hundreds of times he would let me tag along to wherever he was going the next. Such is the magic of food.
Some might scoff that anything magical can happen at a Waffle House, but like Christmas itself from Santa to the nebulous and varied “spirit of the season” it is what you believe and put into it. But the founders of Waffle House figured out something about human nature that religion, folk lore, and tradition has been wrestling with since there were more than two humans to argue about it: when you’re tired, and harried, and hungry, eating helps. Eating when you have no place to go and finding one, is even better. The founders of Waffle House, two World War 2 vets who knew about hardships, figured it out and monetized it. Bourdain figured it out and made it poetic. Working class folks figured it out, to come in and get just enough to go put in one more shift, which, while unheralded, is the sort of everyday magic that makes families, communities, and our nation work. What could be more poetic than that?
But it is Christmas, and folks are waiting, and my father and I are tired both physically from travelling and emotionally for the purpose of our journey, our shared concern for my mother, and the unspoken yet ever present hand of time reminding us time is short. Not unlike the busy staff of Waffle House who, while never rushing us, bussed that booth the moment we stood up, readying it for the next guest.
Time and tide and no man, and hashbrowns…or something.
December 28th, 2019
Collectively, we knew two things would happen on the way back to Richmond Hill, Georgia, from Clearwater, Florida after the funeral and family time was down. One, we were going to drive some back roads and stay off the interstate as much as possible. And two, we needed to stop and eat somewhere between what was now just Aunt Jean’s house and my car in Richmond Hill. So it was that somewhere in North Florida we once again ducked into a Waffle House.
This time it was the middle of the day, the sun was shining, the weather pleasant in the way a mild winter day down south often was. My mother joined us this time, happily eating and spending time with her husband of over 50 years and her son of nearly 40. The server managed to stay busy despite mom telling her some anecdote or another every time she wandered into ear shot. Mom fits right in at Waffle House, you see. The retired special education teacher is the incarnate of Bourdain’s “irony-free zone where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts; where everybody regardless of race, creed, color or degree of inebriation” can only offend by not sitting, and talking, and joining in as if you were family all along. Because to folks like her, that’s how it is. Only the inebriation part is problematic, due to growing up with an alcoholic father which caused a level of harm and poverty the English language doesn’t have a word for, but good manners would keep you from ever knowing it.
A family forged in troubled times like ours always eats when we gather. It was the older folk’s way of reminding the younger that whatever else, we had each other and could put it all aside and fellowship. So, it is with Waffle House. Everyone there has problems, but you can scatter, smother, and cover them with food and fellowship for spell. And you can do so whenever you like, nearly wherever you like, with whomever you like. Just find the yellow sign shining in the darkness, or alongside the road, or in some places — like the city I’m trying to shepherd my youngest kids through school in — across the street from each other in the same intersection.
Come what may, it’s a comfort to know the triage for whatever wound life cuts us with next is close at hand.
Even on Christmas.
This Story first appeared at Yonder and Home, the author’s food writing project.
- To give you an idea of the respect, when they asked him to conduct the memorial service for CP Wells at the Old Main building he lorded over for a generation, my father – who rarely uses hyperbole – would quip only half joking “How do you have God’s funeral?”
- For the uninitiated, that means scattered across the grill as they cook, smothered as in sautéed with onions, and covered meaning a freedom square of American cheese melted on top. You have to put the ketchup on yourself.