On turning 63 at the Waffle House
Think of the Waffle House as the 1950s Main Street diner you never had growing up. The layout is always the same—open kitchen, booths, counter seats, jukebox—and the double-sided laminated menu always includes breakfast, burgers, pork chops, T-bones, waffles, and, most famously, hash browns… the Waffle House is a lot more than a place to eat a patty melt and drink a Coke. It’s a regional touchstone right up there with SEC football and pork rinds. – Andrew Knowlton, restaurant editor of Bon Appetit and Georgia boy.
I will admit that this is not a milestone birthday for me. I don’t feel any different today than I did yesterday or, for that matter, last year or the year before. I don’t require a fancy celebration. I got a cookbook from King Daddy and a lovely bottle of real French champagne from Dammit Boy. My beautiful sister called last night to chat and I heard from my beloved mother-in-law this morning. I have more than I deserve of Happy Birthdays on Facebook. We are having crab legs with melted butter for supper (I will have the boys shell them as my one point of vanity today) and there’s a blackberry cobbler in the oven.
But I did require a trip to the Waffle House for lunch. There are people who turn up their noses at the Waffle House, with it’s garish yellow sign and waitresses that call you “hon” and “sweetheart.” I don’t get those people. In fact, the older I get the more I realize I don’t even like those people.
I love watching the waitresses stand on “the spot” behind the counter to shout out orders to the cooks. I think Waffle House’s cooks are amazing. I learned from Andrew Knowlton that the cooks use condiment packets that each mean something to mark the plates so they can remember every order because they get no written tickets. I love their precision and speed. And I love the fact that everything – completely cooked to order – comes out uniformly delicious. I have never had a bad meal at the Waffle House and that’s saying something after more than 30 years.
I love that the Waffle House is democratic. There’s no cutting in line for a booth just because you might be famous, and even celebrities love the Waffle House. When Noah was little, we went for breakfast one morning and waiting right next to us was Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. I just saw that their first daughter, who was wrapping her arms around her daddy’s leg, is about to turn 18 and go off to college. Vince Gill likes his sausage patties smashed and kind of crispy around the edges. There’s a photo of Taylor Swift on the wall.
The Waffle House is a refuge. My sainted father-in-law and I would go to the Waffle House in Knoxville every year on frigid November mornings before we picked up our Thanksgiving turkey and dressing from Ramsey’s. After the famous 10,000 bee invasion of our master bathroom at 5117, King Daddy set off a bee bomb and we retreated to the Waffle House for a pork chop, grits and fried eggs to calm our nerves. And after Bunny’s harrowing night in substandard lodging after this year’s ice storm prevented us from fetching her from the airport, we ended up at the Waffle House and everything just seemed alright again.
It was the perfect place for birthday lunch.
Texas Toast Bacon Cheesesteak Sandwich, grilled in butter. A 10-napkin affair if there ever was one. With hash browns – covered, peppered and capped (with American cheese, jalapenos and mushrooms) – and a Diet Coke to wash it all down.
And I thought back to the things I’ve learned in 63 years, the chief among them is that you really stop growing emotionally at 16 and you just overcompensate for everything else after that. The author Anne Lemott wrote a Facebook post about turning 61 (whipper snapper) that’s worth reading. But she ended it with this: “When all is said and done, we’re just all walking each other home.”
I get that metaphorically and physically. Like my home away from home – the Waffle House. Always delicious, never judgmental and, most importantly, always there 24 hours a day 365 days a year.