This morning I visited my normal diner after dropping off my daughter at school. For me, it was to be a celebration of sorts, a reward for successfully delivering her to class still wearing at least something, even if only underwear and one sock. Today they were taking pictures with Santa, so, of course, the outfit lovingly chosen by her mother felt, to her, like they were woven from burlap and barbed wire. And these are the mornings that I treat as would a person holding a tarantula.
As I entered the diner, I noticed the stools at the counter were either taken or were blocked by a ladder that the owner was hastily setting up, as if about to replace a light in the ceiling although they all appeared to be working. He gave me a look, sparking the memory of an off-color remark I’d made in a recent visit, and suddenly I felt not quite as celebratory. Thinking about whether to leave, I knew I didn’t want to go home where there awaited a list of overdue tasks, and a keyboard that I had promised some attention. And the only other breakfast place I could think of was a nearby Waffle House.
Before I continue, know that I’ve probably eaten at Waffle House, or as my old crew called it Casa de Wafflé, or just plain Casa, hundreds of times. Most of these encounters occurred years ago at a location near the now-closed County Cork Pub. And from those late-night experiences, a lifelong fascination was born, despite the fact that they were drunken ones.
The primary nature of my Waffle House fascination was how orders were processed. The servers, tired as hell of drunk twenty-somethings who couldn’t decide between grits or hashbrowns, would yell the orders – Pull two sausage! Drop two hashbrown scattered smothered! And how did the cooks keep it all straight without a paper trail? It was one of the wonders of my world.
Eventually, I decided to seek answers and I learned that the very first Waffle House was only a half mile from my house. It was no longer an active restaurant but had recently been converted into the Waffle House Museum, so I went in for a visit.
Once inside, I noticed that it looked just like a Waffle House. “Wow,” I said, perhaps a little too sarcastically. “This looks just like a Waffle House.”
At this point I heard a cell phone snap shut and noticed a woman sitting in the corner. She got up and as she approached me I hoped the look on her face was the dour residue from the conversation she’d just ended.
She introduced herself and explained the history of the building – Unit #1 was built in 1955 and yada yada yada. And as she started showing me around, behind the counter, the same griddle as is used today, and the plastic replicas of T-bone steaks that look exactly as they do in a real Waffle House, I interrupted her, not knowing when I might have this opportunity again since the museum is only open about 14 hours per year.
“Why do servers yell at the cooks?” I asked. ”What do they mean when they say ‘Pull’ and ‘Drop’ and ‘Mark?’ How do the cooks keep all the orders straight?”
She looked a little surprised. “We don’t give out that information. It’s proprietary.”
“Proprietary? But they yell it out loud, every time I’m there.”
No matter which way I rephrased the question, she wouldn’t tell me, but she did mention that the adjacent building had some memorabilia that might be of interest. Sure enough, in the next building were displays of uniforms, buttons, pins, and other brick-a-brack worn by associates over the years. There was also a special section dedicated to restaurant equipment that had survived hurricane Katrina, and another for customers who survived Bert’s Chili, a substance that looks as if it might occur naturally around the floor bolts of 40-year old toilets.
I walked around and listened to a young employee there talking to a family of tourists who had driven from Alabama just for this. Perhaps they should be put on display, I thought. Finally the family left and I gave my question another try.
“Well, they don’t—“
“Lemme guess, you can’t tell me. Whats-her-face over there said the same thing.”
“Well, I can tell you a little,” she said, uncomfortably. “The server gives the pull order first, such as ’pull one sausage,’ meaning they’d pull it from the freezer. This comes first because it takes longer. Then may come the drop, like ‘drop two eggs, scrambled’ because that takes less time than the meat. And so on.”
“How do the cooks keep the orders straight?” I pressed.
I pulled out my Moleskine notebook, the same kind Hemingway might’ve used in the Great War, but she clammed up. I would have to figure out the rest on my own.
I visited the local Waffle House many times in the coming weeks, ordering things I had previously sworn never to touch, let alone put in my mouth. I finally met my match in ordering the hashbrowns “all the way,” a dish featuring jalapeno slices pulled from a jar of Barbicide, chunks of “purple,” and a thick toupee of gravy that looked suspiciously like the sluice that was occasionally scraped off the griddle.
And I noticed myself becoming prohibitively fat. What the hell is in this stuff, I asked myself. I expected to find at least basic nutritional information on their website, as is typical for chain restaurants. But as with my other quest, the Casa wouldn’t tell me that either.
In the end, despite feeling less at home than I once did, I decided to stay at the diner. I took a booth by the window next to two women that looked overly tired from staying up watching last night’s election returns. Maybe I should just learn to keep my big mouth shut.