Uncharacteristically, the mood in the Montgomery, Alabama Waffle House the next morning was tense. The small yellow and black building, with its two cooks and four waitresses, was crammed with hungry people.
I like to sit at the counter in front of the grill and watch the cooks, but all those stools were taken. I found one remaining seat on the side counter, where waitresses make up to go orders and do their other work. WH staff have big name tags.
Michelle was working in front of me, frantically popping waffles hot off the iron into round plastic containers, eggs, hash browns, bacon and sausage into square ones, drawing down drinks, stuffing them into various paper bags. I had no idea Waffle House did such a take-out business. To say the place was cooking would be both terribly corny and an understatement.
Angie, my waitress, was an older white woman who seemed oddly serene in a sea of stress. She moved slowly and deliberately, with a permanent smile on her face. Michelle, her young black co-worker, took notice. The woman next to me, having eaten, was waiting for a take-out order before leaving. She sighed and squirmed, non-verbally complaining that she thought her order was taking too long.
Michelle checked a ticket near a sack at the end of the counter. As she did Angie methodically opened cabinet doors below the counter, checked cartons on shelves above the counter, and looked lost and bewildered. Michelle had seen enough.
“What you looking for girl? And why is this order still sitting here? I made that up for you a while ago.”
“I need take out syrup, and I can’t find any.”
Take out syrup is that small sealed plastic package of sweetness you get in the sack with your waffle.
“We don’t have no take out syrup. We ran out last night. Now get yourself a foam coffee cup, pour some syrup in it, put a lid on it, and get this woman order done so she can get out of here. Jesus Angie.”
Then she added, for good measure or to satisfy the woman waiting for her food,
“We ain’t got no time for foolin’ round Angie. If you han’t noticed, we busy.”
With that Michelle shoved a styrofoam cup into Angie’s chest and walked away. After Michelle was safely out of earshot Angie replied,
“Well, you don’t have to get nasty about it.”
Angie stood in front of me while she poured syrup from a pitcher into the cup. She must have realized I was taking it all in. She leaned in by me and spoke softly.
“Our supply truck was supposed to be here three hours ago, and we’re running out of everything. Everybody is a LIDDLE bit on edge.”
Angie smiled and cocked here head towards Michelle. Then she carefully put the syrup into the sack of the impatient woman beside me who went quickly on her way.
Perhaps the busiest person working at the Waffle House that morning was the waitress doing dishes. There are only two jobs that I can see at Waffle House, cook and waitress. The cooks fry the eggs, ham, bacon, sausage, steak, pork chops, and hash browns. The waitresses do everything else; make the coffee, dish up the grits, make the toast, run the waffle irons, do the dishes, bus the tables, set the tables, and check you out when you’re done. That morning in Montgomery one young waitress was full time on the dishes.
She was heavily inked with tattoos on her forearms and had white girl dreadlocks covering her back. I think I know now why Waffle House coffee cups are so thick and their plain white plates so substantial. Cups, saucers, plates, silverware, and water glasses were getting slammed through steaming hot water, rinsed, dipped, and thrown onto a drying rack. A steady flow of dirty dishes piled up on the dishwasher’s left, and clean dishes reappeared on her right, only to be grabbed by the waitresses, quickly wiped, and stacked where they and the cooks could press them back into use. The sinks were a frantic area. The dishwashing waitress didn’t talk, never stood up straight, just kept everything moving.
From where I sat I had a great view of the waffle irons. On the counter next to them were big white bowls of batter, and in them long spoons. The batter was so thick it held the spoons up. When I make waffles and pancakes I pour the batter. The Waffle House operation involves spooning thick batter onto the waffle iron and spreading it around. Their batter sticks to the spoon. The waitresses bang the spoon loudly on the edge of the bowl so the extra batter sticking on it falls back into the bowl. Thick stuff. Maybe that’s what makes them so good.
Finally, Angie took my order. Before I could start she gave me this warning.
“We are outa grits, city ham, and pork chops. And of course, take out syrup which you know about, though you won’t be needin’ that. So what are you havin’ honey?”
Saying they were out of city ham meant they still had country ham. I had had a lot of time to think it over. I wanted grits but it was of little matter.
“I’ll have a waffle, two eggs over very easy, and hash browns smothered, peppered, and diced with a large glass of milk. “
“You get toast too. White, wheat, or rye?”
“You got it baby.”
There’s something about southern waitresses and those endearing terms they use (maybe it’s the drawl) that damn near makes me blush.
She was back within ten seconds.
“We outa milk too. I got chocolate milk. You want chocolate?”
“I am so sorry.” She was sincere.
About that time one of the two cooks, a woman wearing a baseball hat completely covered with buttons, walked by me in a huff and a hurry. She had a disturbed look on her face and a big stainless steel bowl. She disappeared into the back room. When she returned the bowl was filled with eggs. She put them down by the griddle and made a very loud general announcement to everyone.
“This is the last of the eggs, When we run out of these we in big trouble.”
The other cook, tall and thin, the only man on staff, reacted not at all. He went on quietly spreading out strips of bacon, laying down sausage links, doing his job. He cracked his eggs as smoothly as anyone I’d ever seen. It looked like he barely touched them on the edge of the griddle and then was opening them up, one handed, into a bowl before tossing the shells and pouring them carefully from the bowl onto on the griddle. All in one easy motion. That's artistry right there.
He scattered hash browns over the grill and gathered ingredients. I had a feeling they were mine, and by watching what he added to them my hunch was confirmed.
If you are unfamiliar with the lexicon of Waffle House hash browns it goes like this. I ordered my hash browns:
Scattered -spread out on the grill as opposed to “in a ring”
Smothered -with grilled onions
Diced -with grilled diced tomatoes
Peppered -with grilled spicy Jalapenos
Covered -with melted cheese
Chunked -with grilled hickory smoked ham
Capped -with grilled button mushrooms
Topped -with Bert’s chili
Country -with sausage gravy
Or I could have gone completely crazy and ordered my hash browns “all the way” which is scattered hash browns with everything above. I’ve never had it and never seen it ordered. It is insane to even imagine-cheese and chili and sausage gravy? But it’s on my bucket list.
When Angie brought my order it was pristine and beautiful. I had a full plate of hash browns, another plate with my waffle right out to the edges, and a platter of eggs with four half slices of hot buttered rye toast.
As Angie set my eggs in front of me I remarked
“Hey, that’s three eggs.”
“Yeah, that’s Randy’s thing. When he messes up an egg he gives you the mistake. He probably broke the yolk on one. No sense throwing it away. You get a bonus. And, you get a warm up on that coffee. ”
She filled my coffee mug up to the brim. It was steaming.
“Well that sorta makes my day.”
Angie smiled. I swear I like Waffle House more every time I go there.
As I was dipping a corner of my rye toast into the runny yellow yolk of my first egg the back door opened and a sheepish young man rolled a dolly stacked with cardboard boxes into the restaurant.
The cook with the buttons on her hat let out a whoop and shouted “Bout time!”
Michelle got close to him and said “you damn lucky you showed when you did friend.”
The male cook, Randy I had learned, came up to him, reached for the clipboard he was holding, counted and checked out the boxes, and signed for them.
“I got another load on the truck. Sorry about the wait.”
Randy dismissed his apology.
“Hey, stuff happens. We’re just glad you’re here.”
In a few minutes Angie appeared with a large glass of cold white milk.
“That’s on the house sir. Thanks for being patient.”
When I left I gave Angie a nice tip on the counter. At Waffle House you pay out at the register. The place had cleared a little but there was still a line to pay. The dishwasher with the tats and dreads, now caught up on the dirty dishes, took my ticket and started to make change for me.
My day was rolling, I’d had a great breakfast, and I was happy. I softly whistled a Cee Lo Green song. The cashier recognized it.
“Where’d you learn that song sir?”
She looked up at me with a mischievous grin. I was whistling one of Cee Lo’s catchiest tunes, not his best song but certainly his most popular, largely because of its raunchy lyrics.
“My daughter made me the CD for Christmas one year. It was just running through my mind.”
“Cee Lo’s got some nasty lines in there.”
I was a little embarrassed. It wasn’t the lyrics I was thinking of, it was the tune. But I knew what she meant. I just smiled.
“You’re secret is safe with me sir.”
When young people call me sir I feel old. But it was all good. We made a little connection there.
People work hard bringing breakfast to America, and nobody works harder than the staff at Waffle House. I can’t wait to go back.