Scattered, Covered, and Smothered in Love: Celebrating 50 Years of Waffle House

 

 

Photo by Stephen Chanin

For an early issue of Georgia Music Magazine, this article was anthologized in Cornbread Nation 4: The Best of Southern Food Writing, edited by John Shelton Reed

For an early issue of Georgia Music Magazine, this article was anthologized in Cornbread Nation 4: The Best of Southern Food Writing, edited by John Shelton Reed

You, with the shaggy hair and the battered guitar case slung over your shoulder — you owe this lady something.

At 3 a.m., this Waffle House waitress (Flossie, Christelle, or some other improbable, salt-of-the-earth name) has fetched steaming heaps of starch to soak up the alcohol you just drank and replenish the carbs you burned in that sweaty encore. While pouring coffee you need for the long drive ahead or the hoped-for assignation with that groupie, she has listened patiently to the catty, post-gig debriefing, when you complained about the bass player who, in turn, blamed the drummer for some missed beats, and you all groused about the chintzy club owner and the philistines in this small-town, small-time crowd who do not appreciate your musical genius.

She has winked, called you “hon,” and buttered you up, in so many ways, after an exhausting show. The word “companion” derives from the Old French roots for “with bread”: someone with whom you share bread. The Flossies and Christelles of the world intuitively understand the assuagements of comfort food.

“You’ve been drinking and dancing and hoping for romancing but now you are in the all-night greasy spoon, clinging to the light, not wanting to go to the lonely house,” scats Bert Neill, an Atlanta harmonica player and performance poet. “If the waitress smiles and the guy at the other end of the counter is telling a rude joke, then for a moment you are in the kitchen of the world.”

For musicians and other wastrels and gadabouts, these waffles provide a communion of sorts, the grease from the grill an anointing oil that lubes the gears of Southern nightlife, officiated by high priestesses who smack their gum and soak their tired feet at the end of a shift. Waffle House is, by its very nature, a syrupy place, all bright yellow and full of cheery, unabashed sentiment. Who else cares enough to fire up the griddle at this unseemly hour? Where else could you swap banter with a waitress named “Sunshine”?

“We call her ‘Sunshine’ because she’s always in a bad mood and acts mean as a warthog,” says Nathan Deen, a former cook describing an “iconic Waffle House waitress famous throughout a tri-county area” in coastal Georgia.

Sunshine might act tough as cast iron, but a tender heart beats beneath that brown apron, he says.

“She doesn’t want anybody to know how nice she really is,” says Deen, who lives in Darien. “If you ask for a stupid, picky order like, ‘half sweet tea, half unsweet,’ she’ll mutter under her breath, ‘Choke, you bastard!’ But she’ll do anything for you — baby-sit your kids, take you in if you’re homeless, take you in if your boyfriend’s beating you.”

Thus angels’ bread is made the bread of man, philosophized St. Thomas of Aquinas, and that sentiment is echoed by another theologian, the Rev. Billy C. Wirtz, the boogie-woogie musical satirist who has produced albums such as “Deep Fried & Sanctified,” “Backslider’s Tractor Pull,” and “Songs of Faith and Inflammation.”

“There’s usually a waitress who has been there for at least 15 years and seen it all,” he says. “I knew a very seasoned lady who still wore hot-pants and drove a Camaro when she was in her 60s. When the bar rush came — the bands, the gay bar, the biker bar, the yuppie brats, the preacher who wants to save you, the whole shooting match at the same time — she could keep ’em all under control with her tough-but-kind personality.”

Sunshine and her sisters know their lines, and you, the road-weary performer, know yours. “Scattered, smothered, and covered, baby,” with no cussing, in accordance with the chivalric code posted on the wall.

“There is definitely a symbiotic relationship between Waffle House and musicians, a whole culture and lifestyle unto itself,” says Wirtz, who incorporates the restaurant’s iconography into several pieces of his act. “Without the netherworld of Waffle House and the little hot-sheet, no-tell motels run by the Patels next door, rock ’n’ rollers simply couldn’t exist.”

That argument holds a certain deductive logic, given that rock ’n’ roll and most other forms of American music originated in the South, as did Waffle House, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

Joe Rogers Sr., a longtime grill cook, and Tom Forkner, a real estate “bidnessman,” started with a modest, 14-stool diner in the Avondale Estates community of Atlanta. It had a simple mission: to “Take Care of the Poor Old Cash Customer” with cheap food and neighborly conversation.

Rogers drew inspiration from the most satisfying meal he ever ate: turnip greens, fatback and cornbread served in the shack of an elderly African-American couple when he was assigned, as a National Guardsman, to guard a Tennessee levee on a rainy winter day in 1937. In his restaurant, he aimed to recreate the heartfelt hospitality of these folks who invited him in from the cold.

“We wanted a restaurant for our friends to come in and eat and visit with us,” Rogers explains on the Waffle House web site. “We’re not in the food business; we’re in the people business.”

And that means all people, all the time. Waffle House is one of those rare cultural icons that synthesizes Old South folksiness with a New South (read: racially integrated) ethos. In the early 1960s, when demonstrators against whites-only restaurants descended on the restaurant on Peachtree Street, Rogers cordially invited everybody to the counter, and, later, during the riots that roiled cities after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Waffle House stayed open while most Atlanta businesses close. Civil Rights leaders took note.

As a result, both Usher and David Allen Coe can comfortably belly up to the formica. Waffle House sets the scene in videos for both the Blue Collar Comedy tour and the R&B group, 112. Country singer Trace Adkins has warbled his down-home homilies on a promotional Waffle House tour, and during filming for “RU the Girl?” the divas of TLC usually held their snappy confabs in one of the booths.

“You’re not a real Southerner if you don’t go to Waffle House,” T-Boz says. “We’re keeping it real. Everyone can afford some eggs and some toast.”

And even as the region succumbs to homogenized sprawl, Waffle House maintains its authenticity.

“It’s one of the few elements of Southern life,” Wirtz notes, “that has stayed true and not been ripped off and exploited by outsiders and then handed back to us in some generic, watered-down form, as is the case with country music, NASCAR, rasslin’, and TV preaching.”

The purist approach evidently works; the growing chain now boasts around 1,500 restaurants, serving 160 million customers a year in 25 states — mostly red states.

“Our Northern buddies just don’t get Waffle House,” says Chris Hicks, a guitar player with The Marshall Tucker Band. “But for us Southern boys, that glowing, yellow sign is a comforting beacon. We live on the road, and when we see a Waffle House, we know we’re at least within 500 miles of home.”

The appeal to musicians is obvious: inexpensive, belly-filling food served ’round the clock.

“Waffle House has been like an oasis in the desert for hungry musicians,” says keyboard player Chuck Leavell, who has dined there with the Rolling Stones, the Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton and others. “I can recall many times going there after a show and then getting back on a tour bus or back to my hotel room, all full of pecan waffles, eggs and bacon and then going to sleep.”

Also, on a deeper level, the restaurants offer a touchstone of consistency in a knockabout, vagabond lifestyle.

“It’s the one place that, no matter where you are, you know exactly what you’re going to get,” Hicks says.

At least with the food.

The “people business” is another story.

With its unflinching, open-arms embrace of the “poor old cash customer,” Waffle House offers a crash course in cultural diversity with every meal, the best seat for observing well-lubed people who are nonetheless at their least varnished.

Asked to name the kinds of people he has met at Waffle House in 40 years of daily visits, during the day for coffee and at night after playing blues with some 40 odd (in some cases, very odd) bands, Ira T. “The Harmonica Man” White rattles off: old, young, Baptist, Catholic, educated, uneducated, black, white, thin, fat, bipolar, dope smokers, ex-dope smokers, jailbirds, alcoholics, ex-alcoholics, bikers, Nazis, married, single, never married, married many times, pedophiles, Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, veterans, non-veterans, etc….

Naturally, song lyrics rise from snatches of overheard conversation. At one of the restaurants in Macon, folks still talk fondly about “Cowboy,” an obstreperous regular who addressed everyone, repeatedly, with the signature greeting: “Get outta my pocket! You ain’t mad, is you?”

The late, great Cowboy made such an indelible impression on the musicians who drifted in from the bar next door that he has been immortalized in a song by the Roadhouse Blues Band titled, “You Ain’t Mad, Is You?”

So along with the chocolate pie come other, memorable slices of life.

“One night in Statesboro, every single person in the place jumped behind the counter and hid,” recalls Athens roots rocker Dodd Ferrelle, “because there was a guy in his underwear waving around a shotgun in the parking lot.”

A real-life grease-fire in Mississippi was the basis for Wirtz’s classic ballad, “The Waffle House Fire,” and a lost weekend in South Carolina yielded a ditty titled “Honky Tonk Hermaphrodite.”

“Several couples walked in, wearing tuxedos and prom dresses,” Wirtz says. “As I looked closer, I realized the people in the dresses were men. In the early ’80s in Greenville, that sort of thing could raise an eyebrow and tighten a butt-cheek here and there, but there they were at the Waffle House, no problems.”

Like other aspects of Southern social life, the mood of Waffle House alternates between Saturday night hell-raising and Sunday morning sanctity.

“If you’re in an unfamiliar town on a weekend night, check the local liquor laws and get out of there half an hour before the ‘idiot rush’ of the bars,” the Reverend says. “And don’t go there between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on a Sunday because you get the slow-moving church crowd. I’ve had many a good meal spoiled by not knowing just when to leave.”

Deen says the Waffle House employees regard working the rush after “last call” as a hard-earned “badge of honor.”

“It’s like the Marines who serve a four-year tour of duty and hate it at the time but brag about it later,” he says. “If you can work a double-shift on New Year’s Eve when the bars let out, with a cook out sick and only two waitresses, you’ve accomplished something. You dread dealing with the drunks, but they usually leave good tips.”

Unlike the “crotchety bastard coffee drinkers who only leave a quarter because that was a good tip back in their day,” Deen says, referring to the weekday afternoon crowd of retirees brimming with theories and advice.

“We call one group the ‘Einstein Club,’” White says, of his rival coffee klatch. “Don’t matter if it’s going to the moon or heart surgery, those sumbitches have been there, done that, and have all the answers to all the world’s problems. But they really don’t know squat.”

Deen, 28, worked as a Waffle House cook for about a decade, he says, until his rehab counselor advised him to seek other employment (Vicodin and other palliatives are easy to obtain there) . Based in Darien, he has cultivated a following in Georgia coffeehouses as the “Waffle House Poet” with his spoken-word performances about life at the grill of what he grandly calls the “Fluorescent Palace.”

“Most people seem to just disregard it as a place where old men go to drink coffee during the day and drunks go to sober up at night, but it’s so much more than that,” says Deen, who has filled a tall stack of coffee-stained notebooks with his reflections. “The Waffle House has been my Muse.”

His resulting work is — like the bar rush on a full-moon Saturday night — blazingly candid, poignant, and funny.

“When you show up at 3 a.m. so drunk you can’t even order your patty melt correctly and you look over and see a broken soul in a paper hat being screamed orders at by waitresses, I’m that guy,” Deen writes. “Did you ever once stop and feel sorry for me? You shouldn’t have. I was more messed up than you were.”

He says he took up the spatula in emulation of “Buddy,” the “baddest Waffle House cook around” whose prowess with the waitresses and access to limitless food signified the “coolest job around.”

“I wanted to be just like him,” Deen says. “He told me, ‘Flipping eggs is just like jerkin’ off – all in the wrist. And so began my Waffle House career. Every king has his castle, and I still consider Waffle House my castle. They’re good folks who work there, a family. They’ll pass the hat for you when you get arrested or keep you from having to live under a bridge.”

White agrees: “If you are in trouble, these folks at Waffle House are the ones you want to see. There really isn’t any sort of class-envy. When we walk through that door, every one of us is the same. It’s very strange and strangely comforting.”

Deen, who works as a telemarketer now, says he misses the feel of the spatula, and the cranky ministrations of the ironically named “Sunshine.”

“In a way I am the quintessential Waffle House employee,” he says. “I’m a fractured human being, a bastard child of the pine-tree kingdom with no trust fund and no roots to grow from. I’m making this life up as I go along. That’s what most Waffle House people do.”

That is what most of us do, actually: make it up as we go along. Waffle House just nourishes us — and our music — while we do.

Advertisements

One thought on “Scattered, Covered, and Smothered in Love: Celebrating 50 Years of Waffle House

  1. Tom Poland says:

    Fabulous piece!!! Filled with truth. How many times have I been right there.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s