From 1997 to 1999, I lived 1.6 miles away from a Waffle House. It would have been only a 5 minute drive if I had ever decided to go there, but I didn’t. For another 7 years, I drove past the Waffle House 3-4 times a week on my way to work, but I never stopped then either. It’s not that I dislike an early morning stack of carbs – with some frequency, I would drive past the Waffle House on my way to IHOP. Waffle House had a certain, at the time, je ne sais quoi that repelled a Northern gal like myself. I just had the feeling that Waffle House wasn’t for me.
Enter Ty Matejowsky, and his delightful volume Smothered and Covered: Waffle House and the Southern Imaginary, to demystify that feeling I had about Waffle House. Matejowsky, an anthropologist at the University of Central Florida, has written a book that combines rigorous academic work with a deft hand for prose. Despite the in-text citations, which may intimidate a lay reader, this is no stodgy academic text. Matejowsky brings humor and heart to his exploration of an iconic Southern institution. Waffle House, “a veritable microcosm of messy American modernity,” as he calls it, was founded as a place where the cash-conscious individual can come as they are, at all hours of the day and night, to enjoy the culinary expressions of the American South.
The book is divided into five chapters. The first two establish the history of Waffle House, exploring the evolution of diners and breakfast/lunch counters as well as the founding of Waffle House itself. Once a reader understands the Waffle House origins and forebears, Matejowsky recounts and examines the chain’s reputation for nighttime antics and transgressions followed by a close look at Waffle House’s complex history with race and racism, which is not dissimilar to the region it represents. Finally, the author writes of Waffle House’s place in the creative imagination – listing the many times Waffle House has appeared in songs, movies, books, and other popular culture.
Matejowsky addresses Waffle House’s reputation as a haven for bad behavior. He catalogs news accounts, which “ran the gamut from the cartoonish to the disturbingly criminal,” but he also posits explanations for the frequency of these episodes. Matejowsky highlights the hazards of 24-hour access, thus welcoming in late-night revelers, already intoxicated; the locations of many Waffle Houses, right off of the highway, thus inviting those through travelers who have no reason to be on their best behavior, as they will never be seen again; and the limited seating – Waffle Houses are designed for no more than 33 diners at any given time. These circumstances can create “ideal” opportunities for transgression.
Yet, Matejowsky notes, “Indeed, the visceral and almost clickbait immediacy of watching uploaded images and raw footage of restaurant patrons and employees engaging in heedless acts of incivility, inebriation, vandalism, and physical violence does much to overshadow the more typical and innocuous aspects of everyday Waffle House operations.” It’s primarily a place for price-conscientious customers to get a plate of hash browns “smothered, scattered, diced, peppered, capped, or topped.” However, Matejowsky does not excuse Waffle House, noting that the company “could take a more active role in overseeing its everyday operations, bolstering certain operational guardrails at its restaurants, and enacting various preventative measures that effectively tamp down on overly boisterous or malicious behavior.”
At the same time, Matejowsky is explicit about Waffle House’s reputation as a bastion of Southern racism. He begins this discussion with an exploration of the 2020 killing of George Floyd and the ensuing resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Among the many socially conscious changes throughout the United States, many fast food restaurants issued statements of support – but not Waffle House. Is Waffle House unfriendly to people of color? It has been sued several times over previous decades over allegations of racial discrimination.
To be fair, Matejowsky does systematically compare Waffle House to other similar businesses, such as IHOP and Denny’s, to illustrate that many institutions have less than stellar reputations when it comes to racial equality. He concludes, despite many well-publicized incidents of racial discrimination over the years, some of which resulted in boycotts, that Waffle House persists because of “its brand equity, a marketing term describing the commercial and social value that consumers invest not just in a brand’s products and services but more so in the brand as an entity in and of itself.” Individual Waffle House restaurants may not always foster this kind of equity, but in the public imagination, the company embodies their kind of values.
In addition to noting his deep understanding of the dichotomies of the American South, both unpretentious and deeply complex, characterized by both “mawkish sentimentality” and “foreboding darkness,” it’s important to state Matejowsky’s skill as a writer. Over and over, I found myself noting his golden lines, like “So, if Waffle House is a crowd-pleasing mass-market Fannie Flagg novel for some, for others it comes much closer to a gritty Harry Crews book where the threat of oddball mayhem, especially in the small hours stretching between dusk and dawn, might be anticipated” and “The starchy ingredients and lard-rich recipes long favored at full breakfast and Waffle House possess a distinct gustatory appeal that often over-rides more distant worries about their long-term impact on individual health and overall well-being.” This is what all academic writing should be.
The closest Waffle House to my current home is in Toledo, Ohio, a whopping 175 miles, or 2 hours and 32 minutes away. To say that I haven’t been thinking of ways to justify the trip would be untrue. Those readers of Smothered and Covered, wherever they may be, will share my instinct to make a trip.
Smothered and Covered: Waffle House and the Southern Imaginary
By Ty Matejowsky
University of Alabama Press
Published December 13, 2022