The Waffle House: “An irony free zone where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts for everybody regardless of race, creed, color, or degree of inebriation is welcomed. . . Its warm yellow glow, a beacon of hope and salvation inviting the hungry, the lost, the seriously hammered all across the south to come inside, a place of safety and nourishment. It never closes. It is always, always faithful, always there for you.”
-Anthony Bourdain’s narration, Parts Unknown, Season 5: Charleston.
In the Charleston episode of Parts Unknown, Chef Sean Brock guides Anthony Bourdain through the wonder that is the Waffle House. Brock walks him through his preferred tasting menu-of-sorts which include the following:
Hashbrowns, scattered, with onions, cheese, and ham.
Salad with thousand island dressing
Thin cut pork chops
T-bone with Heinz 57
Like Bourdain, Jake and I are unfamiliar with the ways of the Waffle House. Growing up in Minneapolis-St. Paul, we simply didn’t have Waffle Houses. Growing-up, we often congregated at Perkins for chicken tender melts and pancakes. Many were open 24/7 and served foods like this that also tasted good in any state. Perkins may have served a similar role as Waffle House for Midwestern kids, but lacks its diner counters and open kitchen.
When we traveled as kids, I always knew we were far from home when I saw Waffle Houses. I was very fascinated by the fact that once we reached Waffle House country, we saw a lot of Waffle Houses. The yellow signs called to me. Finally, my parents took us to one. Our flight had arrived in Florida much later than expected and it was open. I don’t remember much about the experience except that I ordered a ham steak and felt very special.
So, why did it personally mean so much to embark on this Waffle House quest? Three reasons: First, watch Charleston episode of Parts Unknown and tell me you don’t also want to go to a Waffle House immedietly. Second, catharsis. A visit as an adult would fulfill a childhood fascination. Third, it was Bourdain, himself, who inspired me to be curious about food and and fed my wanderlust. My folks loved us, but didn’t love cooking or encouraging my cooking experiments. When I discovered A Cook’s Tour airing on the Food Network and starting reading his books, I felt very much like I had found a friend.
I needed this food quest.
Jake and I pulled into our nearest Waffle House on a weekday. We were the only customers. While we may have first intended to order the entire Brock-Bourdain tasting menu, we pared it down.
Actually, Jake went rogue. The All-Star Special struck his fancy. It offered a variety of breakfast foods at the very reasonable price of $7.99 and beckoned him away from the plan. I admit I felt kind of relieved. Instead of ordering the whole menu, I chose a few highlights: A side salad with thousand island dressing, pecan waffle, and patty melt. Even still, I ended-up bringing half of the meal home.
We watched in awe as the Waffle House chef prepared our meals with efficiency and swiftness. He wasted no movements and orchestrated the timing so that everything finished cooking at the same time. Then, he retired to the corner where he promptly took a nap.
The pecan waffle was our favorite, Pride spread and all. Now I want to know why we ever ate waffles without pecans. The meaty nuts make the waffle a feast in itself. And the patty melt? It was everything that you need a patty melt to be.
In the Charleston episode, Chef Sean Brock describes how childhood visits to the Waffle House inspired him to be a chef. He observed how although some of the customers may have appeared “out of control,” at times, the cooks forged ahead, churning out meals and treating everyone with hospitality. There’s beauty in this observation. And in cheap, piping-hot food made with care, served at any time of day.
Sometimes irony-free is the way to be.