Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Hello! I’m Celine, and I love to eat. Welcome to my column The Very Hungry Swattie, where I talk about food and the ideas and feelings that surround it!
Founded in Georgia during the 1950’s, Waffle House is an icon of the American South. The restaurants rely on that “classic American diner” feel, complete with red booths, a jukebox, and tile floors. Although the chain reaches as far north as Scranton, PA, it resonates especially with most of the Southerners I know–seen through the common experience of “feeling home again” after seeing one the side of the highway during a long road trip.
In Roanoke, Virginia, Waffle House has been the classic sneak-out destination for teenage girls who yearn for 3:00am chocolate chip waffles. It was where my high school friends and I ate on prom night, and we saw a man with a tattoo that matched the restaurant logo on his upper arm, Waffle House, spelled out in yellow, scrabble tile letters. A notorious group of boys from my high school ordered every item on the menu– hashbrowns, hamburgers, eggs– and sandwiched them between two waffles. They called it the “McFucker.”
My local Waffle House is filled with sentimental vignettes, and it is possible to think of each establishment as a petri dish of Southern Culture. Waffle House uses a culture of pseudo-Southern Hospitality and Small Business Symbols (e.g. the red booths) to attract customers. As a brown girl who grew up in the South, eating there gives me a window into a “Southern Pride” that I too can claim–one that isn’t, you know, White Supremacy. Instead of romanticizing antebellum grandiosity (as seen in Gone with the Wind) or the inherently classist desire to interact with the (imagined) “simple” people, I can romanticize a less problematic fiction: the 1950’s Southern diner… that I’m allowed to patron.
As renowned food critic Anthony Bourdain put it, “[Waffle House] is indeed marvelous. An irony free zone where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. Where everybody, regardless of race, color, creed, or degree of inebriation, is welcome.”
Bourdain hit my experiences on the nose. The few Waffle Houses I regularly visit are all desegregated, and I have never felt unwelcome. However, like any chain restaurant, Waffle House does not care about my sense of belonging in the South. Waffle House just wants to sell breakfast. 24/7, 365 days. Despite Bourdain’s praise, there is nothing “Utopian” in Waffle House’s mission. Like many chains in America, they desegregated only with the 1964 case of Katzenbach v. McClung which outlawed restaurant segregation. And while my friends and I have always felt welcome at the Roanoke Waffle House, just three hours away in Charlotte North Carolina, a white security guard asked group of Black Gospel Singers to give up their seats for White patrons in 2001.
Waffle House is not immune to racism. There is racism all over the South. And in a fundamental way, there is racism all over America (California, I’m talking to you too!) Too many white creatives parody the South as a dystopia full of simpleminded whites who are not the “same” as themselves. Examples include Cletus Spuckler from the Simpsons, the gun toting granny in the Beverly Hillbillies, the episode of Louie that takes place in Alabama, etc. In 2013, Jezebel published an article, “A Complete Guide to All the Kinds of Racist Southerners,” when in truth, “those people” are all over the place. It’s as if the South is host to toothless white men who strum a banjo by day and burn crosses by night. Of course this exists, but it’s a trope rooted in classism, and it denies the contributions people of color have made to the canon of Southern culture.
If we look at the role regional culture plays in Waffle House, it’s function is primarily economic. Some Waffle House’s are welcoming, and others are hotbeds of racial tension. To go back to my original statement, it really is a petri dish of the American South, showcasing peace, conflict, mundanity. Unity in “it’s 1:00 a.m., and we all want hash browns” and tensions over who has a right to culture butt heads.
Maybe you don’t live in a neighborhood with a confederate flag hanging on every door. But that does not absolve your home from it’s history of racism, whether it be extreme gentrification, white flight, draft riots, the list goes on and on. It’s important to question and challenge the South, but not as an abstract TVland place where all the “bad” white people live while the “good” white people are in New York and Los Angeles. Racism is everywhere—why not question the way it manifests itself in your hometown? Or even in your Waffle House?
Featured image courtesy of thecomeback.com