Being on the road with a dog, there aren’t that many opportunities for a sit down meal, or at least a leisurely sit down inside a restaurant meal — meaning I, in my travels below the Mason-Dixon Line, have been missing out on that southern culinary and cultural delight: The Waffle House.
The Waffle House is one of my favorite places on earth. I love to sit on a stool at the counter and watch the short order cook in action. I love the way the waitresses shout out the orders. I love to watch the waffle iron overflow, see the eggs sizzle on the grill, and eavesdrop on conversations about the days events, spoken in southern accents thick as maple syrup.
On this trip with Ace, in the middle of the summer, the chances to savor a Waffle House experience have been non-existent. It has been way to hot to leave a dog in a car for any length of time.
But the other morning, the coolest one in a long time, I pulled into a Waffle House — they are, after all, at nearly every exit down south, still more prevalent than Starbucks. I found a parking space in partial shade, popped the back window open, and let Ace watch me (and I him) as I sat at a stool and downed a waffle and some orange juice.
It’s not just the food, which comes fast, costs little and tastes good; it’s the Waffle House ambience. It’s knowing, soon as you walk in, four or five employees are going to shout out a hello. Your waitress is going to call you hon’, or perhaps darlin’. And chances are there will be a good conversation going on at the counter. Something about sitting at a counter, even if there’s not a bartender on the other side, sparks open discussion, group conversations. Counters — and they’ve been declining since the demise of the drug store soda shop — have a way of making us realize, as we sit elbow to elbow, that we’re all in this together.
So I always choose the counter.
At this particular Waffle House in Virginia, the conversation was about daytime TV talk show host Wendy Williams. It began when someone said “How you doin’?” Then everybody started saying “How you doin’?” Apparently it is Wendy Williams signature phrase, though some thought she stole it from Joey on “Friends.” Others thought Wendy Williams looked a lot like a man, which of course led to giggles and more debate.
(I didn’t say that discussions were of vital importance, just that they occur.)
(Tip to young reporters: Waffle Houses are a great place to get, in addition to waffles, quotes — better than bars because people are generally sober, unless you’re there late at night; better, too, than the “man on the street,” because the man on the street is generally headed somewhere and doesn’t have time for you. It’s easy to walk in, take a seat — at the counter of course — and get a conversation started on the subject you’re reporting on. I long ago opened a story on a proposal in South Carolina to castrate convicted rapists with a Waffle House exchange.)
The Waffle House got its start in the mid-1950′s when neighbors Joe Rogers, who worked for the Toddle House, and Tom Forkner, in the real estate business, decided to start a business of their own. On Labor Day 1955, they opened the first Waffle House in Avondale Estates, an Atlanta suburb. The chain grew to 401 restaurants by the end of the 1970′s, 672 by the end of the 1980′s, 1,228 by the end of the 1990′s. By 2006, Waffle House Inc., operated more than 1,500 restaurants in 25 states.
At the Waffle House you can get your grits. You can get your hash brown potatoes “Scattered, Smothered and Covered.” You can get “Cheese n’ Egg”s or “Egg and Cheese,” which are two different things, I learned a few years back.
Seeking scrambled eggs with cheese, I placed my order: “I’ll have the cheese and eggs,”
“The Cheese n’ Eggs, or the Egg and Cheese?” the waitress asked. As I was silently pondering what the difference might be — trying to figure out just what I was missing – she explained that the Egg and Cheese is a sandwich.
Waffle Houses – they’re all always open and they all have individual jukeboxes in the booths, but not so loud as to drown out the conversation — are not exclusive to the south, but, like kudzu, that’s where they’ve spread the most.
If you’ve never experienced one, you should. Sit at the counter. Join the conversation. Have a waffle, and maybe some eggs and cheese. Or was that cheese and eggs?
Posted by jwoestendiek August 22nd, 2010 under Muttsblog.
Tags: ace does america, animals, breakfast, coffee, conversation, counter, dining, dog's country, dogscountry, eating, eggs, fast food, food, icon, ohmidog!, pets, restaurants, road trip, south, southern, traveling with dogs, virginia, waffle house, waffles, wendy williams
Route 66 through Tucumcari is like Route 66 through a lot of places — a step back into the past that leaves you wondering if the old road and the motels that line it have much of a future.
Bypassed decades ago by Interstate 40, they fought to survive — and many have managed to do so nicely — but the economic downturn has made that a far fiercer fight.
Some, like the Blue Swallow (above) seem to be hanging on, thriving even. For others, the neon has burned out, the windows have been boarded up and weeds rise waist-high in the parking lot.
The Relax Inn, for example, is a ghost motel — and I’ve seen at least a dozen of them in my travels on Route 66 in New Mexico and Arizona: Its outdated sign remains, but glows no more.
Route 66 was established in 1926, originally running from Chicago through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and ending in southern California – 2,448 miles in all.
It served as pathway for migrants moving west during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Mom and pop businesses began popping up along it around then – restaurants, gas stations, motor courts, curio shops and more. Most of those businesses managed to survive the Depression, even prosper from it, catering to those moving west in search of a better life. World War II led to more westward migration, further bolstering businesses along Route 66. By the 1950s, the road served as the main highway for vacationers headed to California, or to see the sights of the West, and Route 66 thrived.
It would become a cultural icon in the decade that followed – featured in songs, TV shows and movies. It was distinctly American – and even today, some of the motels tout, in addition to their color cable TV and Internet connections, their American-ness.
The Tucumcari Inn, for example boasts that it is “American-owned”, but right next door, the sign at The Historic Route 66 Motel — as if casting aspersions on whether its neighbor is true-blue American — reads “Genuine American.” (Apparently, genuine American-ness, is worth an extra $2 a night)
The beginning of what many thought might be the end for Route 66 came in 1956 when President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act. Interstate 40 offered a speedier alternative, one in which motorists wouldn’t need to go through or slow down for towns like Tucumcari.
Despite the opposition of business and civic leaders in many of the bypassed towns, I-40 stretched on absorbing some parts of Route 66, sidestepping others.
In 1963, the New Mexico Legislature enacted legislation that banned the construction of interstate bypasses around cities by local request – but that didn’t fly. The federal government threatened to withhold federal highway funds. Instead some towns, Tucumcari included, worked out agreements with the federal government, in hopes that the new Interstate would at least come close to their businesses.
By the late 1960s, most of the rural sections of US 66 had been replaced by I-40 across New Mexico, and in 1981 the section bypassing Tucumcari was completed.
Route 66 would be “decommisioned” in 1985 when the federal government decided it was no longer “relevant” – given the presence of the Interstate Highway System.
Since then, there have been many efforts to preserve Route 66, and the businesses along it. In 1999 the National Route 66 Preservation Bill was signed by President Clinton, which provided $10 million in grants for preserving and restoring its historic features.
Today, Tucumcari, whose billboards attempt to lure travelers off the Interstate and into town — “Tucumcari Tonight,” they urge – has fewer motels, fewer restaurants. It’s down to one bar, and the signs of struggle are apparent in boarded up buildings, bargain rates and beckoning neon.
Some of it, like hope, flickers at times, but it still shines bright. Long may it do so.
(Photos by John Woestendiek)
(To read all of “Dog’s Country,” from the beginning, click here.)
Posted by jwoestendiek July 21st, 2010 under Muttsblog.
Tags: ace does america, animals, arizona, blue swallow, buckaroo motel, bypass, bypassed, clinton, culture, dog's country, dogs, dogscountry, economy, eisenhower, historic route 66 motel, history, holbrook, i-40, icon, Interstate 40, interstate highway system, motel, motels, motor courts, neon, new mexico, nostalgia, ohmidog!, pets, popular culture, relax inn, route 66, survival, towns, transportation, travel, tucumcari, tucumcari inn