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A Few Notches Below Brunch: Sunday At The Waffle House

A Waffle House restaurant in Gadsden, Alabama.

A Waffle House restaurant in Gadsden, Alabama. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today is my last day home alone with the dog and I decided that not only was i not in the mood to make breakfast, but I was also not in the mood to “fuss” about taking a long drive to get “the perfect bagel” – as was my previous aspiration until i woke up smelling like a campfire and lacking motivation.

So I decided to head a few miles down the street to a spot next to the highway in a neighborhood just a notch or so above “rural” for a dining experience several notches below what my wife and I often seek out on Saturdays and Sundays for “brunch”. It’s a pace my wife disdainfully nicknames “The Awful House”.

I have a bit higher tolerance for greasy spoon diners and low maintenance eating than my dream girl, so I decided this would be just my speed today. As I put my jeep in park and grabbed the New York Times from my passenger seat I looked up and realized that I would likely be the only one at this place with leisure reading. Then I went immediately into full-on ethnographer mode. As much as it may be both my blessing and my curse, there is definitely no day of rest for a perpetual anthropologist.

I was to conclude from the hour I spent at the Waffle House today that the same goes for the working poor and blue-collar employees and patrons of this particular place of business….and thousands like it around the great US of A.

Unlike the tranquil, kitschy, artsy or hipster aesthetic of your standard urban and suburban breakfast and brunch spots – there is no prioritization of pleasantries beyond please and thank you at places like this designed to fulfill functional needs of folks with no energy or budget for pretense. There is no valet parking and the cars in the parking lot are not german or new but rather 90% used, 70% American and 30% Japanese.

From a typical-customer perspective: the environment is full of dirty dishes, shouting voices in the kitchen and frazzled multi-tasking servers. The food comes out of the same low-cost brand name boxes that you might have at home and is laden with oil and butter. The benefit to coming here? It’s dirt cheap and you don’t have to cook it.

From an employee perspective: it’s a job. And one that is mostly thankless but helps pay the bills. In this particular Waffle house, With the exception of the one white guy working the grill, the staff was half young-ish African-American males and half white females – representing easily 3 generations. There was a mother-daughter team: with Mom a young 65 and daughter not more than 20 years behind. There was also another older woman who couldn’t have been a day south of 70. And everyone was hustling.

The waffle grill area overflowed with caked-on batter drippings and non-functioning appliances occupied opportunistic space in the waiting area. On the way out I noticed all of the signage and branding making a point to reinforce the benefits and bounty of being a waffle house employee: along with the security camera notifications.

The customer base was a diverse collection of mixed-race young families, seniors with their grandchildren, middle-aged singles and working class couples. The common denominator: everyone looked tired and happy to be getting this meal out-of-the-way without too much trouble: forgiving the slow service as they enjoyed some time to sit and not do anything at all.

After about an hour I grabbed my ketchup-smeared check (it was placed face down on the dirty counter in front of me), hummed along with the Doobie Brothers “Black Water” and got in line to pay my eight-dollars-and-change tab….and make note of my reality-check.

Here is a selection of my photo-documentation of the experience from arrival to departure:

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Categories: Anthropology, blue-collar culture, Consumer Anthropology, Consumer Culture, Ethnography, Participant Observation, sociology, southern culture, Suburban Living, Uncategorized, urban culture | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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